Australia news live: ‘extreme’ fire danger in several states as temperatures soar; early voting opens in NSW election

Key events

Josh Nicholas

Josh Nicholas

Passport wait times improve

The Australian passport office has recovered from the pandemic shock with 96% of routine passports issued within the standard 10 business days in February, compared to just 46% a year ago, new data from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade shows.

Passport applications surged after Australia’s international border reopened in early 2022. Processing delays became so pronounced that some applicants waited months or queued outside passport offices for hours. The number of applicants paying an extra $225 for priority service in 2021 was double pre-pandemic levels.

The department is encouraging Australians to continue applying for passports well before they need to travel, with the passport office estimating around 2 million Australians did not renew their passports during the early years of the pandemic, and “most” have yet to re-apply.

Passport applications are still around 25% higher than pre-pandemic levels, and March and April are generally peak periods for passport renewals.

A department spokesperson said:

Customers should continue to plan ahead and allow at least six weeks to apply for or renew their passport, and longer if they are applying for a child passport.

Truck crashes into Sydney home

Two people who were in a truck that crashed through part of a house in Sydney’s south this morning have had a “fortunate escape”, the Sydney Morning Herald reports.

The cabin of the truck, owned by a tree-lopping contractor, was hanging over a 10-metre cliff after the truck crashed through the unoccupied home.

Fire and Rescue NSW Superintendent Adam Dewberry said the truck, which had a chipper trailer on the back, appeared to have lost control after it went down a steep hill at Weerona Place, Caringbah South.

Firefighters rescued the man and woman who were trapped in the front of the truck. Both appeared to have sustained no injuries, however were taken to hospital as a precaution.

Updated at 21.22 EDT

Federal government welcomes decision to hear MH17 case

The federal government has welcomed the International Civil Aviation Organization Council’s decision to hear Australia and the Netherlands’ case against Russia for the downing of flight MH17.

The flight was shot down in 2014 while flying over eastern Ukraine, claiming the lives of 298 people, including 38 people who lived in Australia.

In 2018, Australia and the Netherlands said Russia was responsible for the disaster after investigators confirmed the missile had come from a Russian military base.

Australia’s attorney general, Mark Dreyfus, and foreign affairs minister, Penny Wong, said in a joint statement:

We have maintained since May 2018 that the Russian Federation is responsible under international law for the downing of Flight MH17.

We now look forward to presenting our legal arguments and evidence to the ICAO Council as we continue to seek to hold Russia to account.

We welcome the @icao decision that it has jurisdiction to hear our case against Russia for the downing of MH17.

It is another important step in our collective efforts to hold those responsible to account.

My thoughts are with those who lost their lives & their loved ones.

— Senator Penny Wong (@SenatorWong) March 18, 2023

Updated at 21.12 EDT

It’s looking like there will be no thunderstorms to reprieve the autumn blast of heat many of us are experiencing in southern Australia today.

The Bureau of Meteorology forecasts the chance of thunderstorms will be mainly confined to Australia’s Gulf country and north-west and peninsula districts.

Link found between high cholesterol and dementia risks

Scientists at the Heart Research Institute say they have made a major breakthrough by finding the definitive relationship between dementia and high levels of cholesterol for the first time, AAP reports.

The researchers say the findings are significant, because they mean future tests to calculate a person’s risk from dementia can be performed through blood tests.

The scientists examined the data from 17 global studies that included more than a million patients under the age of 65.

The Institute’s Dr Ashish Misra said:

This is the first time we’ve been able to say categorically that there’s a direct link between what we eat and our cognitive decline.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic drug to get rid of the plaque on your arteries. We need to learn to live with it and help it dissolve over time through improved diet and a healthy lifestyle.

If you’re interested to read more on what you can do to prevent dementia, check out this story from our How to have a healthy brain series.

Updated at 20.11 EDT

Millions of dead fish near Menindee likely eclipses mass fish kills in 2019 and 2018

The amount of dead fish that have blanketed the river near Menindee in latest mass kill appears to eclipse the large-scale fish deaths experienced in 2018 and 2019, ABC reports.

On Friday, the NSW Department of Primary Industries said millions of fish had died below the Menindee main weir due to low oxygen levels in the water as flood waters receded.

A drought in the same area in 2019 led to about a million fish deaths after a rapid drop in temperature led to an algal bloom that de-oxygenated the river.

The dead fish are mostly bony bream, however the ABC reports there are concerns more native species will be impacted as the heat reaches the early 40s in the region today.

Updated at 19.58 EDT

Jordyn Beazley

Jordyn Beazley

Happy Saturday, everyone! Thanks to Graham for leading us through this morning’s developments. I’ll be with you for the rest of today.

Watch and Act bushfire warning in Victoria

Victoria’s Country Fire Authority has issued a “watch and act” notice for anyone in the Eastern View Memorial Arch area to get ready to evacuate.

A bushfire there is under control, but the authority says severe winds are expected from 10am. Wind gusts could reach 70 km/h.

This WATCH & ACT – BUSHFIRE – Prepare to Evacuate has been issued for Eastern View, Memorial Arch.

If you are located in the Eastern View Memorial Arch area, we encourage you to consider leaving now before the severe winds begin.

More details at

— cfa_updates (@CFA_Updates) March 17, 2023

Early voting opens in NSW state election

Early voting centres have opened this morning across NSW ahead of the state election’s official polling day next Saturday.

AAP reports that NSW electoral commissioner John Schmidt expects the early voting centres will see strong demand in the run-up to the day of reckoning on 25 March.

The state electoral commission has a checker on its website to find polling booths, and early voting centres. Check eligibility for early voting here.

For a run down of the key differences between Labor and the Coalition, have a look at this piece from the Guardian’s Michael McGowan and Tamsin Rose.

Updated at 18.49 EDT

Total fire bans in parts of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales

The fire danger ratings in parts of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales have reached “high” or “extreme” levels today.

An extreme rating means anyone living in those areas is advised to make sure their bushfire survival plan is ready and their properties are prepared, as any fires in those places could “spread quickly and be extremely dangerous.”

Here’s a summary of conditions.


Extreme fire danger in regions of Wimmera, South West, Central and North Central.

Total fire bans in the Mallee, Wimmera, South West, Northern Country, North Central and Central, which includes Melbourne and Geelong.

South Australia

Extreme fire danger for regions of Flinders, mid-north and Riverland. Total fire bans across these three regions, which includes the areas of Flinders Ranges, Mount Remarkable, Orroroo Carrieton, Peterborough, Port Augusta, Clare and Gilbert Valley, Goyder, Light Regional Council, Mallala, Northern Areas, Port Pirie City and District, Wakefield, Berri Barmera, Loxton Waikerie and Renmark Paringa

New South Wales

High fire danger ratings across much of the central and south eastern areas of the state. Total fire ban in the central region, which includes Goulburn Mulwaree, Upper Lachlan, Yass Valley and Queanbeyan-Palerang.

A total fire ban is now in place for the Southern Ranges. High fire danger is forecast for much of NSW. Currently 29 fires burning across the state, 5 yet to be contained. It’s important to know your fire risk and what to do if threatened by fire. #NSWRFS

— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) March 17, 2023

My colleague Peter Hannam has this story this morning on how that heat has pushed its way to the east of the country.

Updated at 18.20 EDT

Millions of fish dead near Menindee

The scale of the fish kill in the lower Darling-Baaka river near Menindee was described as “unfathomable” by local Graeme McCrabb who has been driving his boat through more than a kilometre of dead fish.

#UPDATE: video from #Menindee local Graeme McCrabb… @NSWDPIE_Water confirming millions native fish dead. Cause = Lack of oxygen as floodwaters recede, huge build up of biomass and fish whose populations boomed during the wet times. Heatwave exacerbating low oxygen levels 😢

— Sara Tomevska (@STomevska) March 17, 2023

Here’s our full story on the mass fish kill from my colleague Adam Morton published late yesterday.

Updated at 17.52 EDT

Welcome to Saturday

Good morning and happy Saturday. It’s Graham Readfearn here to take you through our live news coverage with many of us feeling this autumn blast of heat.

There are total fire bans in parts of Victoria, NSW, South Australia and extreme fire danger ratings for many areas. A bit more detail about that to come.

There’s some heat on the way for Melbourne with a top of 37C forecast, with 33C for Brisbane and Sydney getting 30C.

There’s also news this morning that much-loved Jurassic Park actor Sam Neill is being treated for stage-three blood cancer.

Before we get into today, a quick summary of yesterday.

  • Millions of fish are dead in another mass kill in the lower Darling-Baaka river near Menindee, in New South Wales’ far west.

  • The US state department approved the sale of up to 220 Tomahawk cruise missiles to Australia, to the tune of $1.3bn.

  • Former Labor minister and Midnight Oil frontman Peter Garrett said the $368bn Aukus nuclear submarine deal was the “most costly and risky” ever made by an Australian government.

  • Treasurer Jim Chalmers said Australian banks are “well placed” to withstand some vulnerability.

  • The Productivity Commission said in its five-yearly report that “the often touted ‘four-day week’ is that much harder to achieve”.

  • Four people were arrested after climate protesters occupied Dominic Perrottet’s office.

  • Time magazine released its list of the world’s greatest places for 2023 and the only Australian capital to make the list was Brisbane.

OK Saturday, let’s see what you’ve got.