Three-thousand reserve troops have joined the efforts to quell Australia’s devastating bushfires as temperatures in Greater Sydney reached almost 50C.
At least 23 people have now been killed in the catastrophic fires, with tens-of-thousands of people forced to flee their homes and communities.
Searing heat and strong winds have further escalated the ongoing disaster, with Saturday bringing what many have seen as the worst conditions yet as flames encroached on the more populous areas of the country.
The defence force reservists will fight fires alongside thousands of full-time and volunteer firefighters, plus scores more brought in from other countries including Canada and the United States.
The suburban area of Penrith, little more than 30 miles west of Sydney, was the hottest place in the world on Saturday, with Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology recording a temperature of 48.9C at 3pm – making it Greater Sydney’s hottest ever day.
New South Wales transport minister Andrew Constance, likened the South Coast fires to “an atomic bomb.”
He said he had been forced to defend his own home from embers, and told ABC Radio Sydney: “I’ve got to be honest with you, this isn’t a bushfire it’s an atomic bomb,”
New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian said her state is facing “another terrible day” and called on people in areas threatened by the fires to leave while they still could.
Authorities also repeated warnings fires could move “frighteningly quick”, with embers carried by wind having the potential to spark new fires or enlarge existing ones.
Australian navy ships have been lifting hundreds of people from beaches in towns cut off by roads by the fires.
Tens of thousands of people have been urged to flee communities near fires, many of them coastal holiday centres, before hot and windy weather intensified over the weekend.
In some of the worst-hit areas, such as parts of Victoria, residents have been issued with emergency warnings and told it is now “too late” to evacuate.
The fires are also causing severe disruption to power supplies, with some 10,000 customers – many of them in the Greater Sydney area – cut off completely.
Pictures captured by snow cameras at Thredbo, a winter ski resort approximatloey 130 miles south of Canberra show an other-worldly landscape with a dark red sky and parched ground as the fires approach.
Australia’s summer wildfire season arrived early – in September – and has been more intense than any on record.
Collectively, more than 20,000 square miles has been burnt out around the country, and area almost the size of Croatia.
At least 20 people have died, and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed.
The nation’s prime minister Scott Morrison has faced intense criticism over the past weeks for his handling of the crisis, including taking a family holiday to Hawaii as the fires intensified and forcing a woman affected by the fires to shake his hand in front of TV cameras.
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, and despite many of the country’s residents calling for an overhaul of climate policy amid the ongoing disaster, Morrison has said there will be no change.
The politician again sparked fury on Saturday after releasing a video on his official Twitter account, which lists the investments his government claim to have made in order to tackle the crisis.
The video has been criticised as a cynical PR exercise by some, not least by Australia’s former prime minister Kevin Rudd who said Morrison is “no longer fit” to serve as PM.
Morrison confirmed on Saturday that his scheduled trips to India and Japan had been postponed as the country reckoned with the devastating fires.
It emerged on Thursday that nearly half a billion animals are thought to have been killed in the wildfires, which have now raged for months after starting much earlier in the southern hemisphere’s spring than usual.
As Australia’s summer reaches its peak, the extreme heat and high winds which have fanned the flames show little sign of abating.
A small amount of rain could fall in some of the affected areas, but it is not expected to put an end to the catastrophic fires.