Australian Navy Begins Mass Evacuations as New Fire Threat Looms

The Australian navy on Friday began evacuating around 1,000 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 have been 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 degrees Celcius (104 F) and hot 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.

A satellite image shows bushfire smoke
A satellite image shows bushfire smoke being blown away from Australia towards New Zealand on Jan. 2, 2020. in this screen grab obtained from a social media video. (NOAA via Reuters)

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.

The state’s Premier Daniel Andrews said 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.

Another death from the fires in NSW was confirmed on Friday, taking the toll in the state this week to eight. Two people have died in Victoria’s fires, and 28 others are unaccounted for.

The navy’s HMAS Choules and Sycamore started the evacuations of around 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 and some airlifts are the only way out of the stricken town.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison had called for calm on Thursday, before visiting the fire-devastated NSW town of Cobargo.

Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison attempts to shake a resident's hand
Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison attempts to shake a resident’s hand during a visit to the bushfire-stricken town of Cobargo, Australia, Jan. 2, 2020 in this still image taken from video. (Nine Network/via REUTERS TV)

Bushfires so far this season have scorched more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of bushland and destroyed over 1,000 homes, including 449 homes destroyed on the south coast this week.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has rated six of South Australia’s 15 weather districts at “extreme” fire danger rating on Friday; three are rated “severe”, five at “very high” and one at “high.”

For Saturday, the BOM has “extreme” fire danger ratings for four of 17 districts in NSW. Six areas are rated “severe”, 10 are “very high” and one is “high”. In Victoria, one district has a forecast “extreme” rating, three are rated “severe”, three at “very high” and two at “high”.

NSW rural fire service (RFS) says there are 127 fires burning in the state and warned of a fire front stretching 60 to 70 km (37-44 miles) on Saturday. It tweeted a map of predictions of the spread of fires on Saturday.

Victoria’s emergency coordination center published its map of fire predictions (pdf).

Ten people have been killed by wildfires in the eastern states of NSW and Victoria since Monday, and 28 are still missing in Victoria.

New Zealand’s government said it would send another 22 firefighters next week. Since October, Australia’s Pacific neighbor has deployed 157 firefighters to Australia. Firefighters have also traveled from the United States and Canada to assist in the firefighting efforts, with many giving up their Christmas and New Year’s holidays to help out.

By Jill Gralow and Wayne Cole

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