Military moves in to help mass evacuation from Australian bushfires

Australia deployed military ships and aircraft Wednesday to help communities ravaged by deadly wildfires that have sent thousands of residents and tourists fleeing to the shoreline.

At least 15 people are now believed to have died, while scores remain missing

Smoke billows during bushfires in Bairnsdale, Victoria, Australia, Dec. 30, 2019. (Glen Morey via Reuters)

Australia deployed military ships and aircraft Wednesday to help communities ravaged by deadly wildfires that have sent thousands of residents and tourists fleeing to the shoreline.

Authorities have urged a mass exodus from several towns on Australia's southeast coast, an area that is hugely popular in the current summer peak holiday season, warning that extreme heat forecast for the weekend will further stoke raging fires.

"It is vital, critical," New South Wales Transport Minister Andrew Constance said on Australian Broadcasting Corporation television. "We need everybody to leave. We are going to face a worse day on Saturday than what we have been through."

Navy ships and military aircraft were bringing water, food and fuel to towns where supplies were depleted and roads were cut off by the fires. Authorities confirmed three bodies were found Wednesday at Lake Conjola on the south coast of New South Wales, bringing the death toll in the state to at least 15.

Authorities said 381 homes had been destroyed on the New South Wales southern coast this week.

See the view of nearby flames from a beach where people have sought shelter:

View from the beach

3 years ago
Duration 0:35
A woman captured the burning vegetation near Rosedale beach on her phone while she and her family sheltered from the devastating fires.

More than 50,000 people were without power and some towns had no access to drinking water, after catastrophic fires ripped through the region on Dec. 31, turning the sky blood red and destroying towns.

Some 4,000 people in the coastal town of Mallacoota fled to the shore as winds pushed a fire toward their homes under a sky darkened by smoke and turned blood-red by flames. Stranded residents and vacationers slept in their cars, and gas stations and surf clubs transformed into evacuation areas. Dozens of homes burned before winds changed direction late Tuesday, sparing the rest of the town.

"The fire just continued to grow and then the black started to descend. I couldn't see the hand in front in my face, and it then it started to glow red and we knew the fire was coming," local resident Mark Tregellas told Reuters.

"Ash started to fall from the air and then the embers started to come down. At that point, people started to bring their kids and families into the water. Thankfully, the wind changed and the fire moved away."

This image made from video shows a burnt house with a garden chair after a wildfire in Mallacoota, Victoria, on Jan.1. Australia deployed military ships and aircraft to help communities ravaged by apocalyptic wildfires that destroyed homes and sent thousands of residents and holidaymakers fleeing to the shoreline. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation via The Associated Press)

Victoria Emergency Commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters the Australian Defence Force was moving naval assets to Mallacoota on a supply mission that would last two weeks, and helicopters would also fly in more firefighters since roads were inaccessible.

"I think that was our biggest threat in terms of what are we doing with the children if we need to go in the water to protect ourselves given the fact that they are only 1, 3 and 5," tourist Kai Kirschbaum told ABC Australia.

"If you're a good swimmer, it doesn't really matter if you have to be in the water for a longer time. But doing that with three kids that would have been, I think, a nightmare."

'Dynamic' and 'dangerous' situation

Conditions cooled Wednesday, but the fire danger remained high across the state, where four people alone were reported missing.

"We have three months of hot weather to come. We do have a dynamic and a dangerous fire situation across the state," Crisp said.

Seven people have died this week, including a volunteer firefighter, a man found in a burnt car, and a father and son who died in their house.

Property damage shown Wednesday in Sarsfield, Australia. In the New South Wales town of Conjola Park, 89 properties were confirmed destroyed and cars were melted by Tuesday's fires. (Jason Edwards/AAP Image/News Corp Pool via Reuters)

Firefighting crews took advantage of easing conditions on Wednesday to restore power to critical infrastructure and conduct some back burning, before conditions were expected to deteriorate Saturday as high temperatures and strong winds return.

"There is every potential that the conditions on Saturday will be as bad or worse than we saw yesterday," said Rob Rogers, deputy commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.

The early and devastating start to Australia's summer wildfires has led authorities to rate this season the worst on record. About 5 million hectares of land have burned, leaving more than 1,300 homes destroyed.

Prime Minster Scott Morrison said the crisis was likely to last for months. "It will continue to go on until we can get some decent rain that can deal with some of the fires that have been burning for many, many months," Morrison told reporters on Thursday.

Smoke from the wildfires caused the air quality in the national capital, Canberra, to be the world's worst and was blowing into New Zealand.

With files from Reuters