Tens of thousands of holiday makers raced to evacuate popular seaside towns on Australia’s east coast on Wednesday, fleeing ahead of advancing bushfires, as military ships and helicopters began rescuing thousands more trapped by the blazes.
Fueled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are now burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, threatening several towns.
Long queues formed outside supermarkets and petrol stations near high-danger areas and shelves were emptied of staples like bread and milk, as residents and tourists sought supplies to either bunker down or escape.
More than 50,000 people were without power and some towns had no access to drinking water, after catastrophic fires ripped through the region over the past few days, sending the sky blood red and destroying towns.
Authorities urged a mass exodus from several towns on Australia’s southeast coast, an area hugely popular in the current summer peak holiday season, warning that extreme heat forecast for the weekend will further stoke raging 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 the eastern states of New South Wales and Victoria since Monday, and 18 are still missing, officials said on Thursday.
— A naval ship arrived on Thursday at the southeastern coastal town of Mallacoota, where 4,000 residents and visitors have been stranded on the beach since Monday night. Up to 800 people are expected to be evacuated on the first trip, state Premier Daniel Andrews said. The HMAS Choules is expected to make two or three voyages over coming days, state authorities said.
— “It is hell on earth. It is the worst anybody’s ever seen,” said Michelle Roberts, owner of the Croajingolong Cafe in Mallacoota, told Reuters by telephone from her cafe in Mallacoota. Roberts hoped to get her 18-year-old daughter out on the ship to get away from the spot fires and thick smoke that continue to engulf the town.
— Five military helicopters were en-route to the south coast to back up firefighters and bring in supplies like water and diesel, the Australian Defence Force said on Thursday. The aircraft will also be used to evacuate injured, elderly and young people.
— Traffic on the main highway out of Batemans Bay on the NSW coast was bumper to bumper after authorities called for the town to be evacuated. Residents of the town reported was no fuel, power or phone service, while supermarket shelves were stripped bare of staples. “Everyone’s just on edge,” local resident Shane Flanagan told Reuters.
— The New South Wales state government declared a state of emergency, beginning on Friday, giving authorities the power to forcibly evacuate people and take control of services. The state’s Kosciuszko National Park, home to the Snowy Mountains, was closed with visitors ordered to leave due to extreme fire danger.
— Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged those waiting for help and those stuck in traffic jams “to be patient … help will arrive.”
— Dairies in New South Wales that had lost power were being forced to dump milk. “That is the tragedy of what is occurring as a result of these disasters,” Morrison said.