SYDNEY/MELBOURNE—Bushfires were burning dangerously out of control on Australia’s east coast on Saturday, fueled by soaring temperatures and strong winds that had firefighters battling to save lives and property.
Authorities have said conditions could be worse than New Year’s Eve on Tuesday, when fires burnt massive tracts of bushland and forced thousands of residents and summer holidaymakers to seek refuge on beaches.
The national death toll in the current fire season, which began in September, is 23, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said. Of the deaths, eight were confirmed since Dec. 30.
More than 5 million hectares (13 million acres) of land has been burnt across the country.
The government announced an unprecedented call up of army reservists to support firefighters as well other resources including a third navy ship equipped for disaster and humanitarian relief.
“Conditions beginning to deteriorate quickly on NSW southern firegrounds,” the Bureau of Meteorology said in a tweet. “Heat and wind are building which is increasing fire activity.”
In South Australia, two people died on Kangaroo Island, a popular holiday spot not far off the coast, taking the national toll from this week’s fires to 12. Twenty-one people remain unaccounted for in Victoria, down from 28 reported on Friday.
More than 130 fires were burning in NSW on Saturday, many out of control, and in Victoria there were evacuation recommendations for six fires, emergency warnings for 11 others and dozens more still burning.
“There are a number of large and dangerous fires burning across NSW that pose a serious threat to life,” the NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) said.
In Victoria, authorities had urged people in areas covered by a state of disaster declaration to evacuate, and said that tens of thousands of the estimated 100,000 population had left for safety.
“But there are still significant populations in those areas,” said Graham Ashton, Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police. Those who stayed needed to keep monitoring emergency announcements and fire tracking apps, he said.
The first of thousands of residents and vacationers stranded on a beach in Mallacoota in southeastern Australia landed near Melbourne on Saturday morning after a 20-hour journey by ship. A much bigger ship, carrying about 1,000 people, is due to arrive on Saturday afternoon.
In parts of the Snowy Mountains region in NSW, remaining residents were told they were at risk.
“The window of opportunity to leave has now closed. It is too late to leave,” the RFS said in a fire advice bulletin. “Seek shelter as the fire approaches. Protect yourself from the heat of the fire.”
A late southerly wind change expected on Saturday will dramatically lower temperatures, but it will also bring wind gusts of 70-80 km/h (43-50 mph) in coastal areas where some of the most dangerous fires are burning.
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said more than 100,000 hectares of Kangaroo Island, about one quarter of its total area, had been burnt, but weather conditions have now improved.
The focus on Saturday is preventing more loss of life, authorities said. National parks have been closed and people strongly urged earlier this week to evacuate large parts of NSW’s south coast and Victoria’s north eastern regions, magnets for holidaymakers at the peak of Australia’s summer school holidays.
Morrison confirmed that his visit to India and Japan scheduled for mid-January had been postponed due to the fires.
By John Mair, Will Ziebell and Sonali Paul