Evacuations have continued across the lower half of Australia’s eastern coast due to devastating bushfires, with potentially catastrophic conditions expected later this week.
More than a dozen towns in the states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria have been ordered to evacuate, including popular tourist areas and national parks, causing massive traffic queues and petrol and supply shortages.
Traffic came to a grinding halt in some areas as thousands fled the South Coast region of NSW, according to the police, who overnight escorted 100 cars out of the area at a time.
In Victoria, catastrophic bushfires continue to tear through the north-eastern region. Some 1,000 people were being evacuated by the Australian Navy on ships on Friday morning.
The number of people unaccounted for in Victoria has increased to 28, while two more people have been confirmed dead in East Gippsland, Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told a press conference on Friday.
“We’ve not had such large-scale fire activity, such a big fire edge, so many going fires, and then get another wave of really challenging weather a week or so later,” Andrews said.
Navy Commander Scott Houlihan told reporters that 60 people were flown out overnight from Mallacoota in Victoria, which has been cut off by bushfires since New Year’s Eve, forcing people to flee to the beach for safety.
More than 960 people had signed up for evacuation, he added.
“The fires were of such ferocity and intensity that it was very traumatic and people felt their lives were absolutely at risk,” Victoria’s Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said Friday.
“You should leave to save your life. If you don’t we will be sending out police to make sure you’ve got the message.”
Victoria has declared a state of disaster for the first time in history, while NSW has declared a week-long state of emergency, the third one since November.
The evacuation order in NSW has also affected tourists and visitors in the Snowy Mountains region, a popular holiday destination.
Local authorities have stepped in to address complaints of petrol and supply shortages, amid massive traffic logjams in the area.
Bushfires have been raising havoc in all six of Australia’s states and one territory. Only the Australian Capital Territory has been spared so far. In total, 19 people have died.
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) has warned that some towns cannot be defended due to the enormity of the bushfires and said firefighters will prioritize lives over homes.
In NSW alone, eight people have died this week in bushfires, raising the number of fatalities in the state to 16 since October, including three firefighters, according to police and the RFS.
More than 3.6 million hectares has been burned across NSW, which is larger than Belgium, and 1,365 homes have been destroyed, the RFS said. Almost 450 were destroyed on New Year’s Eve alone.
On Friday morning, there were more than 140 fires burning across the state, but none at the emergency level, with more than 2,000 firefighters deployed.
In Victoria, bushfires have scorched more than 784,000 hectares. So far, 68 properties have been destroyed, but the numbers are likely to increase drastically as around 50 fire areas were still burning on Friday.
In the state of South Australia, one person has died and more than 100,000 hectares of land has burned since last month. Some 88 homes have been destroyed. On Friday, 18 bushfires were burning with one at Kangaroo Island at emergency level.
In Queensland, the state covering Australia’s north-east, there have been no fatalities, but 250,000 hectares have been razed and 45 homes destroyed. The bushfires began there in September, and more than 30 were burning on Friday.
In Western Australia, more than 1.5 million hectares have already burned this bushfire season, but only one home has been destroyed. Three dozen bushfires are currently burning.
In Tasmania, the island state off Australia’s south coast, 8,000 hectares have burned and two homes destroyed. On Friday, 23 bushfires were still burning.
While in the Northern Territory, five homes have been destroyed and five bushfires were burning on Friday, dpa/NAN reported