SYDNEY, Australia — Wildfires surging across Australia’s drought-ravaged East Coast have left two people dead and destroyed more than 150 homes, officials said on Saturday, sounding the alarm for what is expected to be one of the country’s worst recorded fire seasons.
With summer heat waves still several weeks away, 1,500 firefighters were battling 70 fires across New South Wales, mostly north of Sydney, where massive clouds of smoke drifted east, turning skies orange. The smoke clouds were large enough to create their own weather systems, experts said.
Officials said it was unprecedented to see so many fires so out of control this early in spring.
“The consequences are absolutely apparent and evident over the last few weeks and particularly highlighted in the last 24 hours,” said Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons. “We have got the worst of our fire season still ahead of us. We’re not even in summer yet.”
The dire assessment from both firefighters and meteorologists — who warned of dry, windy conditions to come — confirmed what scientists have been predicting: Australia’s bush fires will become more frequent and more intense as climate change worsens.
Few if any other developed countries in the world are as vulnerable to the impacts of a changing climate as Australia, according to independent scientific reports. The country’s ecology combines a vast arid interior with rapidly-heating ocean currents that make it a global hot spot for warming seas. And over the past year, the urgency of the issue has increased because of a drought that’s settled across swaths of the country’s most productive agricultural areas — including some of the areas now ablaze.
Farmers and residents in the areas that are now burning have reported being surprised by both the intensity and speed of the fires’ spread. Some residents reported seeing flames that were 60 feet tall. Others drove through conditions that looked apocalyptic.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the Australian Defense Force would help where needed, and financial assistance would be made available to people affected by the fires.
“The devastating and horrific fires that we have seen particularly in New South Wales but also in Queensland have been absolutely chilling,” Mr. Morrison told reporters in Sydney.
The two people who were killed died near Glen Innes, a small town of around 6,000 people northeast of Coffs Harbour.
Firefighters said they found a body on Saturday in a burned car. Another woman, found on Friday unconscious and with serious burns, later died in hospital.
At least seven more people have been reported missing near the same fire.
Carol Sparks, the mayor of Glen Innes, described the terrifying scene.
“People were burned, lives were lost,” she told reporters. “People battled to save their houses and then had to walk out because their cars had blown up, it was just horrific.”
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said more deaths and damage were likely on the way.
“Not only is it about next week,” he said, “but, unfortunately, the forecast for the balance of the season continues to be driven by above-normal temperatures, below-average rainfall.”