AUSTRALIA – Thousands of people will be rescued by army helicopters after spending New Year’s Eve stranded on the beach as a horrific bushfire engulfed the Victorian coastal town of Mallacoota.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) will help respond to fires raging in Victoria’s East Gippsland where four people are missing in blazes that have destroyed at least 43 homes.
Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters will join the Navy in rescuing thousands of stranded tourists and locals – and will provide vital supplies to those affected by the bushfires.
Authorities believe more than 4000 people are still stuck at Mallacoota, in the state’s far east, which was hit by fire about 8.30am on Tuesday.
Two people were confirmed dead in New South Wales with another unaccounted for as a blaze tears through the state’s south coast.
In Mallacoota, the sky turned an eerie shade of black in the morning before transforming into a deep red, with residents reporting ‘hot embers’ falling from the sky and a deafening ‘roar’ as the fire approached.
Eerie photos show Batemans Bay residents surrounded by thick smoke as they wait on the beach. Many people can be seen wearing scarves to shield their faces
Nervous people took to social media as they stood on the town’s pier in life jackets said they were waiting for a signal that meant they should ‘get down to the water and get underwater’.
By midday many people were still waiting on the beach and jetty. One person at the wharf reported the fire was within 300m.
A handful of houses could be seen alight by 2pm but authorities said the fire in the main CBD was being held back.
On Tuesday evening, though, the state’s Country Fire Authority said a wind change which swept through the region had bypassed the fire-threatened town of Mallacoota.
‘I understand there was a public cheer down at the jetty when that was announced,’ CFA Deputy Chief Officer Steve Warrington said.
Emergency sirens have been sounding at the town, and the fire threatening the town has burnt more than 72,000 hectares.
Eight emergency warnings are still in place and there are fears dry lightning storms could spark yet more fires.
Clifton Creek Primary school has been wiped out by a bushfire in East Gippsland, 20-minutes from Bairnsdale, with all of the building reduced to rubble as a result of the blaze.
Premier Daniel Andrews said he had requested Australian Defence Force to help provide food, water and power to the community.
He said authorities were concerned for four people unaccounted for in the East Gippsland region.
‘We do have real fears for their safety. They’ve been in active fire environments and we can’t account for them,’ Mr Andrews said.
Mr Andrews said there was also ‘significant losses’ to property as blazes continue to rip through the area.
‘These fires, particularly in East Gippsland, overnight and throughout yesterday, were creating their own weather,’ he said.
‘That’s how fierce, that’s how active those fires were. There have been very significant losses in terms of property, stock, fencing, shedding.’
The premier had been text messaging with Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Tuesday morning about support for the recovery effort.
‘We have a range of plans in place ourselves but there may be ways in which the ADF can support us.’
Resident Jann Gilbert has been sharing terrifying footage from the town.
‘The fire front is very close to us now’ she says in the video which she has shared to Facebook.
‘Unless you’re here, you can’t even imagine what it’s actually like.
‘It’s hard to breathe, even with a mask on.’
Authorities said Mallacoota is ‘currently under attack’ and a number of houses are understood to have been lost around the community.
‘We’ve got three strike teams sitting in with the community, literally standing by side-by-side with our community at the beachfront as they’ll protect the two townships, up to two streets in that,’ CFA chief officer Steve Warrington told reporters.
‘Reports from crews I spoke to on the ground half-an-hour ago, it is pitch-black. It is quite scary in that community.’
Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said an evacuation order was not issued for Mallacoota – despite authorities encouraging residents in other parts of East Gippsland to flee.
‘At the community level and regional level they had to work through what their options were and undertake a risk assessment of that, Mr Crisp said.
‘We decided it would be unsafe to move them back along the Princes Highway. At the same time you have fires in New South Wales. So it is difficult to move north of Mallacoota.
‘Exploring all those options, looking at the risk assessment it was then decided mid-late yesterday afternoon…the safest place for them to say was definitely in Mallacoota.’
Authorities believe at least 4000 people are trapped at Mallacoota, in the state’s far east.
The fire at Mallacoota has cut power to the town, with AusNet Services reporting 5700 properties in East Gippsland without electricity due to the fires, and another 1800 in northeast Victoria also down.
Mobile and landline phone lines are also down in parts.
The Bureau of Meteorology said the temperature recorded at Mallacoota jumped to 49C at 8am before dropping to 24C at 9am.
‘It’s not pleasant, it’s pitch dark here and the emergency vehicles have disappeared from sight,’ resident and local community radio presenter Francesca Winterson told ABC Gippsland.
‘The power’s been out here a long time and we’ve run out of solar.
‘My home’s in the fire path, I won’t have a home, that’s just the way it’s going to be, we have to try and be calm.’
One resident wrote on Twitter: ‘The darkness in Mallacoota is utterly surreal. Not far off pitch black when this should be a beautiful sunny morning.’
Terrified people trapped on the beach said they were standing on the pier with lifejackets waiting for the signal to jump in the water
‘This is the worst waiting now. Pitch black. The roar of… something. No visible fire but we (and our CFA neighbour) are sure it’s coming.’
Michelle Roberts, who was seeking shelter at her cafe Croajingolong with a few others, told The Age: ‘I can describe it as probably hell on earth.’
Ms Roberts said she felt sorry for the people camping outside and she felt safer inside the concrete building.
‘If it gets really bad, I’ll open [the cafe] up and get people coming in,’ she said.
‘If worst comes to worst we’re just going to have to make a run for it.’
Residents in the East Gippsland region were encouraged to flee on Monday morning as authorities prepared for deteriorating conditions
Hundreds of people in the small town of Buchan were crammed into the football oval overnight as they took refuge from the danger.
Residents and holidaymakers were told to leave the region by Monday morning, as authorities prepared to close the Princes Highway amid the deteriorating conditions.
Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said it was too dangerous for people to leave after 9am on Monday as out-of-control fires took hold of East Gippsland.
‘If you’re not out by 9am, you’ve got to stay where you are, because there’s every chance the Princes Highway could be cut,’ he told Sunrise.
The Princes Highway between Bairnsdale and Genoa was then shut at 1pm on and remains closed.
Australia’s famous Mogo Zoo is directly in the line of the out-of-control Clyde Mountain bushfire and firefighters warned there is nothing they can do to save the attraction.
The zoo’s animal enclosures were threatened by the 31,000-hectare fire burning to the north around the town of Batemans Bay on New South Wales’ south coast.
The sprawling Mogo Zoo is home to about 200 animals and the largest collection of primates in Australia – as well as giraffes, lions, tigers, southern white rhinos and red pandas.
VicTraffic said: ‘The Princes Highway in East Gippsland remains closed between Bairnsdale and Genoa, due to the fires. Major road closures include the Bonang and Great Alpine roads, and Monaro Highway.’
On Sunday, local retailer Richard Darby warned residents and tourists choosing to ignore the warnings that it ‘could be suicide’.
‘It’s going to be a very bad day tomorrow, they are telling everyone to get out while they can,’ Mr Darby told The Herald Sun.
East Gippsland Mayor John White said bushland in the region was bone dry after three years of drought.
‘Hopefully people heed the messages. You can rebuild homes, sheds and fences but life is irreplaceable,’ he said.
EAST GIPPSLAND FIRES
* Fires have ripped through more than 200,000 hectares in Victoria’s East Gippsland, it was estimated early Tuesday morning, after growing rapidly amid winds and lightning strikes overnight
* Seven emergency warnings, the highest alert, remain in place across East Gippsland
* Another in place for a fire straddling the northeast Victoria-NSW border at Corryong/Walwa
* The coastal holiday town of Mallacoota is among those under direct threat, with about 4000 people believed to still be in the area being told to go into the water
THE FALLOUT SO FAR:
* Properties have been lost in Victoria’s east, but authorities say it’s too soon to confirm how many or their locations
* Thousands of properties have lost power, with AusNet Services reporting electricity has gone out at 5700 properties in East Gippsland and another 1800 in northeast Victoria
* Optus says its mobile customers may be experiencing disruptions in Tambo Crossing, Mallacoota, Cann River, Tonghi Creek, Mt Raymond, Marlo, Orbost, Waygarra and Mt Nowa Nowa
* A cool change swept through East Gippsland after extreme heat on Monday, but windy conditions remain, further fuelling the fires and spreading ash
* Premier Daniel Andrews will join emergency services authorities to provide an update on the situation at 11am