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Bad Weather Worsens Wildfires In Western Australia


Australia, the country that covers an entire continent, is divided into six states. Four of those states are dealing with bushfires - hundreds of bushfires. There's even smoke in the air in major cities, and there's no end to this in sight. Here's Lisa Neville. She's the state emergency services minister for the state of Victoria.


LISA NEVILLE: It is too dangerous to be driving, not only just from smoke, but because of the erratic nature and the fast-moving nature of these fires in East Gippsland. But this is a warning to all Victorians. This is not yet over.

KING: All right. I'm on the line now with Alex White. She's a reporter for the Herald Sun. Hi, Alex.

ALEX WHITE: Hi. How are you?

KING: Good, thank you. Thanks for joining us. Tell me, where are you in Australia? And what are you seeing? Are you seeing the fires directly or just the smoke?

WHITE: I'm in Melbourne, which is a little bit far away from the fires that are ongoing this evening. However, we have been experiencing them - some smoke in recent weeks. And of course, we see it every year. There was a bushfire that was happening on one of the suburbs of the city just two days ago, so even though we're not part of the ones today, we will definitely be part of them in the future.

KING: I was reading this morning about a coastal town in the state of Victoria where people were told, get in the water. Like, get in the water to protect yourselves from the fire; there's no other option for you. Can you tell us what happened there?

WHITE: So this was a town that's - it's in an extremely remote area, but it is very, very popular at this time of year among families and fishermen. So there's thousands of people there at the moment. And unfortunately, because there's so many bushfires, all the roads out to the north had fires that were out of control, and the highway back to Melbourne to the west was also cut off. So it was this really unique position where they said that the fire was so erratic that they said, stay where you are; it's safer.

When there was a really dramatic wind change at about 4 a.m. this morning, it swept close to the town and actually burned some buildings in the town, and everyone had to evacuate down to the beach. There was reports of embers the size of mobile phones falling on people, smoke everywhere. There's photos will show its pretty dramatic landscape of red and smoke. And lots of people got onto boats just in case, as they were warned that - one of the biggest killers in a bushfire is actually not the flames; it's actually the radiant heat, which can be about 300, 400 meters from these flames because they're so large.

KING: You mentioned earlier that Australia is a country that's used to dealing with bushfires. This is something that happens every year, if not to this extent. But I wonder, how - what has the government's response been? Is it under pressure to do more? What more can it do?

WHITE: Well, look. There is - this year is unique because there is the debate that, obviously, the climate is changing. We have had a lot of unprecedented fire activity in areas where it doesn't usually occur. So there's definitely more discussion about what we can do in the future. But the reality is, is that it's a very dry country. It's got the conditions that are made for bushfires.

Our state governments rely mainly on volunteer forces, so we are having a discussion at the moment of whether we should be paying our volunteers to prepare them for major fire activity because they're probably likely to be doing more in the future.

KING: Herald Sun reporter Alex White in Melbourne. Alex, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

WHITE: It's no problems (ph). Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.