Australia’s most populous state declared its second emergency in as many months on Thursday as extreme heat and strong winds stoked scores of uncontrolled bush fires, some on Sydney's doorstep.
In the same week the continent experienced its hottest day on record, thick smoke blanketed the harbor city, shrouded the Opera House and brought many outdoor activities to a halt.
The state of emergency declaration gave firefighters broad powers to control government resources, force evacuations, close roads and shut down utilities across New South Wales, which is home to more than 7 million people.
Firefighters are battling more than 100 fires, more than half of which are uncontrolled, and with temperatures forecast to top 45 degrees Celsius (113°F) in some areas, officials warned residents to be on high alert.
“The fire front has been spreading very quickly and intensely,” NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney, adding that two firefighters had been airlifted to hospital with burns to their faces and airways. “It's still a very difficult and dangerous set of circumstances.”
Days out from Christmas, a time when many Australians head to the coast for the holidays, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian advised people to make sure “you are prepared to change your plans should circumstances change.”
The RFS posted footage on its official Twitter account showing firefighters tackling one of the three blazes ringing Sydney. A water bomber aircraft was dwarfed by thick grey and black billowing cloud as it attempted to douse flames in bushland just meters away from homes.
Australia has been battling wildfires across much of its east coast for weeks, leaving six people dead, more than 680 homes destroyed and nearly 3 million acres (1.2 million hectares) of bushland burnt.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has weathered a storm of criticism on social media in recent days for going on an overseas holiday during the emergency, adding to criticism that his government is failing to deliver adequate climate change policies.
As the media reported Morrison was in Hawaii with his family to enjoy a break, about 500 protestors gathered outside his official Sydney residence to demand urgent action on climate change. Morrison's office refused to confirm his whereabouts.
Australian state declares emergency as wildfires surround Sydney