Australia Fires: Thousands flee to sea as blazes ravage coastal towns

31 December 2019, 06:35 | Updated: 6 January 2020, 13:45

The town of Long Beach, Batemans Bay is across the water, obstructed by smoke
The town of Long Beach, Batemans Bay is across the water, obstructed by smoke. Picture: Twitter / Iesha Rose @Iesha_Rose3

Thousands of people have been evacuated to beaches in Australia as the devastating wildfire season continues to claim lives as blazes rage across several states.

One fire moved into the Victoria coastal town of Mallacoota turning the sky blood-red across the area, images posted to social media show residents evacuated to the sea.

Some 4,000 people were forced to take shelter on the beach in the holiday town of Mallacoota, in the East Gippsland district along the Pacific coast. Around 4,000 more people were sheltering in community centres in the town.

Residents in Mallacoota posted on social media about hearing the roar of the fire, circulating photos showing how, in the words of some, the smoke had turned "the day into night".

Four people were missing in the area, where more than half a million acres of forest have been burnt out and where the intense heat and smoke from fires has been creating localised storm systems.

"Mallacoota is currently under attack," Victoria's state emergency commissioner Andrew Crisp said on Tuesday.

"It is pitch-black, it is quite scary... the community right now is under threat but we will hold our line and they will be saved and protected."

Emergency services officials said it was possible towns in the Gippsland area could be evacuated by sea as the fires, fanned by strong winds, continued.

The out-of-control fire reached the town in the morning and about 4,000 people fled to the coastline, with Country Fire Authority members working to protect them.

The town had not been told to evacuate on Sunday when the rest of East Gippsland was, and authorities decided it was too dangerous to move them on Monday.

People reported hearing BBQ gas bottles explode as the fire reached the town, and the sound of sirens telling people to get in the water.

Meanwhile, officials confirmed another two people had died in blazes in New South Wales. With officials confirming the death toll from more than three months of wildfires in multiple states now stands at 12.

Police said a father and son died in the early hours of Tuesday defending their home in Cobargo, near the coast in the state of New South Wales (NSW), 280 miles south of Sydney.

The town was hit by one out-of-control fire which roared into the community in the middle of the night, with its main street bearing the impact.

An aerial view of a bushfire in Ellerslie
An aerial view of a bushfire in Ellerslie. Picture: New South Wales Rural Fire Service

Another person was unaccounted for in the NSW town of Belowra.

As defence force personnel assisted firefighters and volunteers in tackling some of the worst blazes, eight fires were burning at emergency level across NSW, with a similar number ongoing in Victoria, and two more in the island state of Tasmania.

Major roads were closed near the south coast of NSW including the country's main national carriageway, the Pacific Highway.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison posted a video address expressing sympathy over the death on Monday of volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul, 28, who died when what was described as "a fire tornado" flipped his truck off the ground while he attended a blaze near Albury, in southern NSW.

"As 2019 draws to a close, the devastating impact of these terrible bushfires continues," Mr Morrison said.

Residents seek refuge close to water
Residents seek refuge close to water. Picture: IG: travelling_aus_family

High fire danger and extreme temperatures - western Sydney hit 45 degrees on Tuesday - have caused the cancellation of several planned New Year's fireworks displays, including in the national capital Canberra.

Sydney's iconic harbour-side fireworks were to go ahead, but with signs displayed of how people could donate money to help those affected by fires.