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Huge wildfire forms; resident injured in Australia crisis

Two wildfires have merged to form a 600,000-hectare (2,300-square mile) inferno in southeast Australia and a resident was injured protecting their home during a night of extraordinarily treacherous conditions as the nation’s unprecedented fire crisis continues.

Authorities were assessing the damage Saturday after firefighters battled flames fanned by strong winds through the night and lightning strikes sparked new blazes in New South Wales and Victoria, Australia’s most populous states. 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.

Firefighters and members of the army discuss a nearby fire threat at the Burragate, Australia, firehouse, Friday, Jan. 10, 2020. Thousands of people are fleeing their homes and helicopters are dropping supplies to towns at risk of wildfires as hot, windy conditions threaten already fire-ravaged southeastern Australian communities. The danger is centered on Australia’s most populous states, including coastal towns that lost homes in earlier fires. (AP PhotoRick Rycroft)

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 600,000-hectare 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.

The protesters carried placards that said: “We deserve more than your negligence,” “This is ecosystem collapse” and “We can’t breathe,” referring to wildfire smoke that has choked both cities.

Australia is the world’s biggest exporter of coal and liquid natural gas. Australians are also among the worst green-house gas emitters on a per capita basis.

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.

A fire strike team and several members of the Australian Army arrived in the village to try to save properties, and the assembled team was prepared to hunker down in the local fire station if the flames overran them.

In the end, the winds died down and so did the fire. The crisis was averted, for now. But fire crews worry the flames will flare up again during a fire season that could continue for months.

Harris said he likes to live off the grid in his remote home, which is made from mud bricks. He has no electricity, and instead uses batteries to power the lights and a small wood burner to heat water. The cottage itself has a warm and cozy feel. And Harris feels like he has a point to make.

“If this house survives I think it will be a bit of a wake-up call for people,” he said. “That maybe people should start building like this, instead of over-exorbitant houses.”

Harris prepared for the fires expected on Friday night by tacking sheets of iron over his windows and clearing the area around the house of grass and shrubbery that might have caught alight. He dug a hole away from the cottage to house his gas canisters.

Harris said his plan was to stay as long as possible to defend his home and then retreat to the fire station in the village if needed. But he may have found it difficult to get to the station if the fire had ended up surrounding the house.

Harris said he was disappointed in the environmental destruction that Europeans had visited upon Australia in just over 200 years since they’d first arrived, and that people should be paying attention to the more sustainable way that indigenous Australians had lived for the prior 60,000 years.

“This is a result of the human species demanding too much of the environment,” he said of the wildfires.

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