Australians leave homes as heat, winds escalate fire danger

A yacht sails past a burning woodchip mill as the wildfires hits the town of Eden, New South Wales, Australia, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. The wildfires have destroyed more than 2,000 homes and continue to burn, threatening to flare up again as temperatures rise.

BURRAGATE, Australia — Two wildfires have merged to form a 2,300-square-mile inferno in southeast Australia during a night of extraordinarily treacherous conditions as the nation's unprecedented fire crisis continues.

Thousands of people fled their homes and helicopters dropped supplies to towns at risk of nearby wildfires as hot, windy conditions threatened already fire-ravaged southeastern Australian communities.

The danger is centered on New South Wales and Victoria, Australia’s most populous states, where temperatures and winds spiked after a few days of relatively benign conditions.

Authorities were assessing the damage after firefighters battled flames fanned by strong winds through the night and lightning strikes sparked new blazes in New South Wales and Victoria. Conditions were milder on Saturday and forecast to remain relatively benign for the next week.

"In the scheme of things, we did OK last night," Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told Nine Network television on Saturday.

New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters "we're extremely relieved" the fires were not been more destructive overnight.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said there had been a "serious injury of somebody protecting their property." She said that person had been taken to a Sydney hospital, but gave no other details.

With no heavy rain forecast, the giant fire in southern New South Wales near the Victorian border is expected to burn for weeks, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said.

The fire crisis in southeast Australia has claimed at least 26 lives, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and scorched an area twice the size of the U.S. state of Maryland since September.

It has also brought accusations that Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative government needs to take more action to counter climate change. Thousands of protesters rallied late Friday in Sydney and Melbourne, the respective capitals of New South Wales and Victoria, calling for Morrison to be fired and for Australia to take tougher action on global warming.

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On Friday, thousands of people in the path of fires fled to evacuation centers, while some chose to ignore evacuation orders and stayed to defend their homes.

Evan Harris, who lives in the New South Wales rural village of Burragate, said police and fire crews told him he should leave his cottage because of the threat, but he told them he wasn't going anywhere.

Burragate was choked with smoke for several hours on Friday and was directly in a fire's path.

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Associated Presser reporter Rod McGuirk in Canberra, Australia, contributed to this report

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