A series of “unprecedented” bushfires are raging through Australia’s southeastern state of New South Wales, with more than 1,000 firefighters battling 17 emergency-level blazes and strong winds expected into the night.
Images posted to social media show ominous bright orange skies and thick smoke wafting across roads and towns throughout the region.
As of 5:30 p.m. local time Friday (1:30 a.m. ET) there were 96 fires across the state, with 57 burning out of control, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS).
“If you are near these fires, your life is at risk and you need to take action to protect your life,” the NSW RFS said in a Twitter post. Some residents in Jacobs Spur near the town of Kempsey have been told it is too late to evacuate so they should take shelter immediately.
The areas most affected by the fires include Tenterfield, Armidale, Clarence Valley, Port Macquarie, Nambucca and Kempsey, according to CNN affiliate Nine News.
The fire service said in a Twitter post that a number of blazes “are becoming more intense” and “more dangerous.”
It warned that some blazes were creating their own weather conditions and that fire clouds — which can produce lightning without rain — were developing.
“These (fire clouds) are extremely dangerous. Do not be caught in the open,” the NSW RFS said.
The blazes are so fierce that major roads and highways have been closed and motorists in affected areas have been advised to delay non-essential travel, Nine News reported. At least five schools have closed due to the fires.
“To have 17 fires concurrently burning at emergency alert level is without precedent in the state of New South Wales,” NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said in a briefing Friday. “We’ve simply never had this number of fires burning at the same time.”
Fitzsimmons said the fire service has received reports that several communities have been impacted by the blazes, including reports of injuries to residents and damage to buildings.
The “high concentration of fire and extreme volatility and extraordinary fire behavior” was being driven by a “drought stricken landscape” and hot, dry, windy conditions,” he said.
Winds are set to be “relentless” throughout the evening, Fitzsimmons added.
In a tweet Friday, Rob Rogers, Executive Director Operations at the NSW Rural Fire Service described the fires as “unprecedented” and asked residents to “avoid fire affected areas.”
About 50 bushfires are also blazing in the neighboring state of Queensland. Residents in several areas there have been told to evacuate as emergency-level fires threaten homes and properties.
Queensland and New South Wales are prone to wildfires in spring and early summer, and this year’s blazes follow Australia’s hottest summer on record, which brought worsening drought, bushfires and very low rainfall.