Thousands flee fires in Australia, navy helps evacuate the stranded

08:48 | 03/01/2020
Tens of thousands of holiday makers fled seaside towns on Australia's east coast on Thursday (Jan 2) as bushfires approached, and military ships and helicopters began rescuing thousands more trapped by the blazes.
thousands flee fires in australia navy helps evacuate the stranded
This picture taken on Dec 31, 2019 shows a firefighter hosing down trees and flying embers in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales. (SAEED KHAN/AFP)

Fuelled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, threatening several towns.

The NSW state government declared a state of emergency, beginning on Friday, giving authorities the power to forcibly evacuate people and take control of services.

"It is hell on earth. It is the worst anybody's ever seen," Michelle Roberts said by telephone from the Croajingolong Cafe she owns in Mallacoota, a southeastern coastal town where 4,000 residents and visitors have been stranded on the beach since Monday night.

Roberts hoped to get her 18-year-old daughter onto a naval ship, which arrived off the town on Thursday, in order to escape the fires and thick smoke engulfing the town.

The HMAS Choules is expected to make two or three voyages over the coming days, state authorities said.

Elsewhere, long queues formed outside supermarkets and petrol stations as residents and tourists sought supplies to either bunker down or escape the fires, emptying shelves of staples like bread and milk.

More than 50,000 people were without power and some towns had no access to drinking water.

"Everyone's just on edge," said Shane Flanagan, a resident of Batemans Bay on the NSW coast.

Authorities urged a mass exodus from several towns on the southeast coast, an area popular with tourists during the summer holiday season, warning that extreme heat forecast for the weekend will further stoke the fires.

"The priority today is fighting fires and evacuating, getting people to safety," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Sydney. "There are parts of both Victoria and New South Wales which have been completely devastated, with a loss of power and communications."

Eight people have been killed by wildfires in NSW and Victoria since Monday and 18 are missing, officials said on Thursday.

Temperatures are forecast to soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit) along the south coast on Saturday, bringing the prospect of renewed firefronts to add to the around 200 current blazes.

"It is going to be a very dangerous day. It's going to be a very difficult day," NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

This season's blazes have killed at least 18 people, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and scorched about 5.5 million hectares - an area bigger than Denmark or the Netherlands. Officials in Victoria said 17 people were missing in the state.

The unprecedented crisis has sparked street protests calling on the government to immediately act on climate change, which scientists say is creating a longer and more intense bushfire season.

Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under increasing pressure for his actions, which included holidaying in Hawaii as the disaster unfolded and reiterating his support for Australia's lucrative - but heavily polluting - coal mining industry.

In his first official press conference since the latest blazes flared, Morrison said Thursday said "every absolute effort" was being made to assist affected communities.

"The best way to respond is the way that Australians have always responded to these events and that is to put our confidence in those who are fighting these fires," he said, while defending Australia's climate change policies as "sensible".

Agencies/AFP

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