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Australia bushfires still burning at emergency levels; death toll rises

SYDNEY - A weather change eased fire threats in southeastern Australia on Sunday after a horror day of blazes that killed one man and injured four firefighters, though authorities said risks remained with a number of fires burning at emergency levels.

Property losses from Saturday's wildfires across eastern Victoria and southern New South Wales were estimated in the hundreds, but authorities said mass evacuations by residents of at-risk areas appear to have prevented major loss of life.


An aerial view shows smoke covering the coast in New South Wales, Australia January 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tracey Nearmy


Nearly 150 fires were still burning in New South Wales, and dozens more were burning in Victoria on Sunday morning.


A shortwave infrared image shows wildfires burning east of Obrost, Victoria, Australia January 4, 2020. Satellite image ©2020 Maxar Technologies/Handout via REUTERS


A southerly change that came through on Saturday night has brought cooler temperatures, after they topped 40 C (104F) in many areas on Saturday, and there was even the prospect of some light rain in coastal areas in coming days.


General view of the remains of a burnt-out property which was impacted in late December 2019, in Bruthen South, Victoria, Australia, January 4, 2020. AAP Image/James Ross/via REUTERS


"It will be a reprieve of sorts, it will be a psychological reprieve for many, but it's certainly not going to be the sort of relief we're looking for in terms of getting under control all these fires or putting these fires out," NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

The death of a 47-year old man who was defending a friend's rural property in NSW took the national toll this fire season to 24.


Smoke from the Currowan Fire towers over Nowra, New South Wales, Australia January 4, 2020. REUTERS/Tracey Nearmy


The weather change brought with it strong winds that whipped up fires and kept them burning overnight. In the Southern Highlands region south of Sydney, a new fire was burning out of control after the winds helped drive an existing blaze to jump the Shoalhaven and Kangaroo rivers.

NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the focus would be on recovery and helping those who were displaced and had lost their homes, as well as containing fires still burning. She said these were unprecedented circumstances.


Thick plumes of smoke rise from bushfires at the coast of East Gippsland, Victoria, Australia January 4, 2020 in this aerial picture taken from AMSA Challenger jet. Australian Maritime Safety Authority/Handout via REUTERS


"We can't pretend that this is something we have experienced before. It's not," she said, pointing to the concurrence of major fires, and threats to towns previously considered safe.

"The weather activity we're seeing, the extent and spread of the fires, the speed at which they're going, the way in which they are attacking communities who have never ever seen fire before is unprecedented. We have to accept that." —Reuters