Eight thousand residents of Gracemere in central Queensland have been urged to leave as a sudden wildfire bears down on homes in catastrophic fire conditions.
A large fire sparked shortly before 3pm on Wednesday has raced towards Gracemere, prompting authorities to issue a complete evacuation of the community just south of Rockhampton.
Emergency services are now racing to get people out. Police said at 4.40pm AEST the fire front was expected to reach Gracemere “in the coming hours”.
Some locals who had wanted to stay to defend their properties have also begun preparing to leave after advice from firefighters that the fire had become too dangerous. The conditions are rated as potentially “catastrophic” – a combination of fierce, gusting winds, low humidity and record high temperatures.
The state has closed 34 schools and warned parents to come and collect their kids and stay out of danger as firefighters battle 138 fires.
It follows the raising of the state’s fire danger warning to “catastrophic” – the highest level – for the first time.
More than 130 bushfires are burning across Queensland, fuelled by strong winds, a heatwave and dry vegetation.
The worst threat is for a fast-moving bushfire near the town of Gracemere, said Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk.
“We have never, ever in this state been in this situation before,” she told reporters late on Wednesday.
“We have not had a catastrophic level. This is uncharted waters.”
Earlier, Brian Smith, Regional Manager for the Rural Fire Services Central Region, said experts in fire behaviour had predicted catastrophic conditions would unfold in the area north of Bundaberg on Wednesday afternoon.
“This is something we don’t want to overstate, but they’re comparing this to the conditions in the Waroona fires in Western Australia, which completely wiped out a town a few years ago, and also to the recent California fires,” he said.
The Bureau of Meteorology has warned records have fallen and more are expected to fall as the state swelters through the heatwave and bushfire crisis.
North Queensland has already hit maximum temperatures with Proserpine the hottest in the state so far at 42.9 degrees.
More than 1,000 people had left their homes near the Deepwater fire, south of Agnes Water on the state’s central coast, as of Wednesday morning.
Residents in the path of another fast-moving intense Queensland bushfire were ordered to leave their homes near Gladstone on Wednesday afternoon.
Fire crews have been monitoring the blaze at Ambrose, west of Gladstone, as conditions steadily worsened throughout the day. Temperatures soared above 40 degrees and reported wind gusts were in excess of 50km/h.
The fire and emergency services minister, Craig Crawford, said on Wednesday morning that people not following evacuation orders were risking death by staying put.
Fierce westerly winds are sweeping inland Queensland bringing a cloud of dust and expected to impact the fire zone this afternoon creating “extremely dangerous” conditions.
The heatwave has prompted a warning from Queensland Health for people to stay hydrated as paramedics treat record numbers of patients affected by heat.
Dr Sonya Bennett said the combination of a record heatwave with smoke and dust was extremely dangerous.
“Heat can be a severe health risk, particularly the young, the elderly and people with chronic health conditions,” she said.
People have been urged to drink plenty of water to stay hydrated and limit outdoor or strenuous activities and to stay in a cool area if possible.
Heat stress symptoms include a rash, sweating, nausea vomiting, hot dry skin and fainting.
Anyone suffering any of those symptoms should seek medical attention.
More crews from South Australia were expected to arrive on Wednesday, and Palaszczuk indicated she may seek assistance from the army.
Meanwhile, thousands of heat-stressed bats were dropping from trees and creating a health hazard in far north Queensland, as a record-breaking heatwave blasted the region.
About 3,500 flying foxes were estimated to have perished since the furnace-like conditions began on Sunday, a Cairns regional council spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
Health authorities warned residents not to handle distressed flying foxes after a spike in bites and scratches. About 15% of bats carry the potentially deadly Australian bat lyssavirus.
Authorities ordered people in Gracemere and surrounding areas to evacuate immediately to the nearby city of Rockhampton.
Unlike in Australia’s drier south, intense fire conditions are unusual in central Queensland in late November because it is the wet season.