Australia begins bushfire evacuations as new threat looms

Smoke and wildfire rage behind Lake Conjola. (AP pic)

BATEMAN’S BAY: The Australian navy on Friday began the evacuations of some of the thousands of people stranded on the east coast of the fire-ravaged country as a searing weather front was set to whip up more blazes across the states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW).

At the peak of the summer holiday period, tens of thousands of holidaymakers were urged to leave national parks and tourist areas on the NSW south coast and eastern areas of Victoria before a return of temperatures above 40°C and strong winds on Saturday.

Victoria declared a state of disaster for the first time, giving authorities broad powers to compel people to leave their properties and take control of services, similar to the state of emergency that has been declared in NSW.

Andrew Crisp, emergency management commissioner for Victoria, urged people in at-risk areas to leave their homes immediately and not count on luck to avoid disaster.

“This is your opportunity to get out. It is not just the fires we know. It is the new fires that might start today,” he told ABC News.

So far this week the fires have killed seven people in NSW and two in Victoria, where 28 other people are unaccounted for.

The navy’s HMAS Choules and Sycamore started the evacuations of nearly 1,000 of the 4,000 people stranded on a beach in the isolated town of Malla­coota in far-east Victoria, federal member of parliament Darren Chester tweeted on Friday morning.

With all roads blocked, sea transport is the only way out of the stricken town and each round trip could take a day or more.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison had called for calm on Thursday, before visiting the fire-devastated NSW town of Cobargo where he was not entirely welcome.

Video showed Morrison confronted by a group of angry locals, one of whom shouted he should be “ashamed of himself” and said he had “left the country to burn”.

Speaking to the ABC, Morrison said he understood there were strong feelings.

“They have lost everything and there are still some very dangerous days ahead,” he said.

Morrison’s conservative government has long drawn criticism for not doing enough to address climate change as a cause of Australia’s savage drought and fires.

Bushfires so far this season have scorched more than 4 million hectares of bushland and destroyed over 1,000 homes, including 381 homes destroyed on the south coast just this week.

  • Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews says the state of disaster was an extraordinary step for extraordinary circumstances. “If you can leave you must leave. Not just for your safety but for the safety of those who may be called to your aid,” he told ABC news.
  • Nine people have been killed by wildfires in the eastern states of NSW and Victoria since Monday, and 28 are still missing.
  • NSW rural fire service says there are 142 fires burning in the state and warned of a fire front stretching 60 to 70km on Saturday. Past Saturday, there were no other peak days of fire danger forecast for a while.
  • Police and emergency services again urged tourists on the state’s South Coast and in the Snowy Mountains to leave the area ahead of dangerous fire conditions. The deadline to leave Kosciuszko National Park was 10am.
  • Thousands of people had already been evacuated from the region of East Gippsland in Victoria, one of the largest in the country since the northern city of Darwin evacuated over 35,000 people in the aftermath of cyclone Tracy in 1974.
  • A contingent of 39 firefighters from North America landed in Melbourne this week, bringing to almost 100 the number of US and Canadian experts who have flown in to help deal with the crisis.
  • The prime minister is visiting a donation centre in Victoria on Friday morning. On Thursday, Morrison said the fires would burn for “many, many months … it goes on and it will continue to go on … until we can get some decent rain.”
  • Morrison, forced to defend his government’s limited action on climate change, blamed a three-year drought and lack of hazard reduction for the unprecedented extent and duration of this year’s bushfires.
  • United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed sympathy for those who have suffered in Australia, UN spokesman Farhan Haq said on Thursday, adding that Guterres has warned that when it comes to tackling global warming, “right now the pace we’re on, we’re not winning that race”.