Australia's temperate mountains evacuated as bushfires approach

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Hundreds of residents and holiday-makers have been ordered to evacuate Australia’s temperate Snowy Mountains region in the state of New South Wales as fierce fires threaten from two sides, authorities said on Thursday.

The order covers the Kosciuszko National Park, a near 7,000 square km (2,700 square mile) area popular for snow sports in winter, requiring hotels and other businesses to close and people to leave by Friday morning.

“This is not a fire season that New South Wales has seen before,” the state’s National Parks and Wildlife Service said on Thursday.

“It is hotter and drier than we have previously experienced.”

The mountain area is located 200 km (125 miles) inland from a mass exodus occurring along Australia’s south-east coast where fires fueled by extreme temperatures are decimating small towns.

Huge bushfires have been burning for weeks across Australia, with new blazes sparked into life in bushland left tinder dry after a three-year drought.

Although the valleys and mountains around Mount Kosciuszko, the country’s highest peak, are much cooler than the fire zones further east, fires are threatening to the west and south of the national park and are unlikely to be immediately contained, authorities said.

Liv Poole, who lives and works in the ski resort village of Thredbo, told Reuters that she would pack her belongings on Thursday evening and go to Sydney.

“The smoke is rolling in,” Poole said.

“There are a lot of mountain-bikers and hikers here at the moment who are leaving.”

While the mountainous region is best known for its winter ski fields, it also attracts a large number of tourists in summer enticed by the cooler climate.

Poole said there were typically several hundred people staying in the area’s main tourist hubs at this time of year.

The Snowy Mountains region had more than 1.7 million visitors in 2019, according to Tourism Australia data.

The main fire risk will occur on Saturday, authorities said, and the smoke-affected air quality in the usually pristine area was rated on Thursday as “very unhealthy”.

Seven people have been killed in New South Wales since Monday, including a volunteer firefighter, officials said, with one person still missing.

Reporting by Jonathan Barrett in Sydney; editing by Richard Pullin