Thousands of people in Australia have been forced to flee their homes with some taking refuge on beaches after wildfires blocked their escape routes, prompting authorities to request urgent additional assistance from the military.
In Australia’s most populous state of New South Wales, authorities said two people had died and one person was unaccounted for, while in the neighbouring state of Victoria, four people were unaccounted for on Tuesday morning.
“They’ve been in active fire environments and we can’t account for them,” Daniel Andrews, Victorian state premier, said at a press conference.
Tuesday’s fatalities bring the death toll as a result of the crisis to at least 11 people, including three firefighters. Wildfires across Australia have been burning for more than two months, with the ones in NSW labelled by fire authorities the worst in the state’s history.
Linda Reynolds, Australian defence minister, said the military would deploy helicopters, an aircraft and two naval ships to help people trapped by fires.
Mr Andrews said he had requested more firefighters from both the US and Canada.
He said weather and smoke conditions were making it difficult for helicopters and aircraft — used for fighting fires — to operate.
People in the affected areas took shelter on beaches, or moved from rural areas to evacuation centres in larger towns. In Mallacoota — one of the worst affected areas — thousands of people took shelter on the beach, at a community centre or in boats offshore in Eastern Victoria, where the sky turned a vivid red and black as the fire approached.
“Mallacoota is currently under attack,” Victoria’s Country Fire Authority chief, Steve Warrington, said.
“We’ve got three strike teams sitting in with the community, literally standing side-by-side with our community at the beachfront . . . Reports from crews I spoke to on the ground . . . [said] it is pitch-black. It is quite scary in that community.”
Shane Fitzsimmons, NSW fire chief, urged people not to travel down the south coast of the state in the path of the fires and confirmed that many residents and holidaymakers had been told it was too late to leave their locations.
“Most of our messages are about sheltering in place, and staying in place, because it is simply too late and too dangerous to leave,” he said.
Meanwhile, Sydney city authorities said the New Year’s Eve fireworks — a major tourist attraction for the state which brings in $130m for the NSW economy — would go ahead on Tuesday after fire authorities granted organisers an exemption from the total fire ban in the area.
A petition calling for it to be scrapped in light of the fires had gathered 280,000 signatures by midday on Tuesday. Sydney mayor Clover Moore said while the blazes were “a wake-up call for our governments to start making effective contributions to reduce global emissions”, planning for the event started 15 months ago.
The fires have also hit the states of Queensland, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania.