The first ever “catastrophic” bushfire warning in Queensland, Australia, prompted a large-scale evacuation on Wednesday. The main town under threat was spared, but the intensity of fire conditions has caused concern.
As the sky blackened and her horses whinnied in the smoke, Fayleen Zemlicoff debated the “very last minute” she could remain at home.
Ferocious winds were flicking embers from a bushfire towards her. The smoke was so intense it was “like a volcano had gone off”, she said.
But she and her adult daughter, Anja, were trying frantically to load the horses into a vehicle. Unsettled, the animals were resisting.
Ultimately the pair, along with three elderly relatives, made a choice to leave.
Ms Zemlicoff put her phone number on slips of paper, and tied them to the horses’ manes.
“To drive away and not know what we would come home to, whether the animals would survive… it was a heartbreaking decision,” she told the BBC. Fortunately, all of the horses survived.
The family were among as many as 8,000 locals who evacuated from the Queensland town of Gracemere late on Wednesday, after receiving an evacuation order.
“This fire was just something that’s never happened to us before,” Ms Zemlicoff said.
“But we are in drought, and everything around us is dry, dry, dry.”
Lance Jones, a farmer, said he had never witnessed such panic in the town in his 30 years living there.
Three years ago, Gracemere was among the towns battered by a powerful cyclone which left widespread damage.
But Mr Jones said that natural disaster had not “scared us to the point of evacuation”.
‘Not over yet’
Ms Zemlicoff and her family stayed at a motel in nearby Rockhampton, as fire crews battled through the night.
“We have saved the town of Gracemere,” Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk declared on Thursday morning.
The success has been attributed, in large part, to the efforts of firefighters and computer modelling of the blaze’s path.
The threat to Queensland was not over, however, the premier said. More than 100 fires remained burning across Queensland on Thursday, fuelled by strong winds, a heatwave and a long dry spell.
Authorities have called the conditions “unprecedented” in Queensland.
The evacuation of Gracemere was the first time a “catastrophic” fire warning – the highest level – had been issued in the state.
“What we experienced yesterday was off the charts,” Ms Palaszczuk said.
“Nobody has recorded these conditions any time in the history of Queensland. And we are still not out of the woods.”
Why is this unusual?
Unlike in Australia’s drier south, intense fire conditions are unusual in central Queensland in late November – typically the start of the wet season.
But existing ideas about threat periods are being challenged, experts say.
“There is always an amount of variability in fire seasons each year, but research is showing that fire seasons are lengthening,” said Dr Richard Thornton, the chief executive of the Bushfire and Natural Hazard Cooperative Research Centre.
“[It is] now to the extent that we are now seeing a year-round fire season in Australia.”
Dr Samantha Lloyd, manager of the South East Queensland Fire and Biodiversity Consortium, said central Queensland had experienced fires “around this time” previously.
But what’s concerning, she said, was that “we just don’t generally see this intensity of fire weather”.
Dr Lloyd noted that climate change modelling had pointed to increasingly frequent and severe weather events.
“We usually only have one to two extreme fire days in a year, and now we’ve had something like three to four in just a few days,” she said.