Military ships and aircraft have been deployed to coastal communities in southeastern Australia cut off by raging wildfires that have raced towards the coast, trapping thousands as the death toll from the apocalyptic blazes continues to grow.
Cooler conditions on Wednesday, the first day of 2020, allowed authorities to take stock of the damage from the latest blazes this week that have destroyed more than 200 homes and damaged roadways, cutting off coastal areas. Fire danger still remains high in New South Wales and Victoria states, where four people are missing.
Victoria Emergency Commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters on Wednesday the Australian Defence Force was moving naval assets to the town of Mallacoota on a supply mission that would last two weeks and military helicopters would also fly in more firefighters since roads were inaccessible.
“We have three months of hot weather to come," Crisp said. "We do have a dynamic and a dangerous fire situation across the state."
On the last day of 2019, some 4,000 people in the coastal town of Mallacoota were forced to flee to the shore as winds pushed a fire toward their homes under a sky darkened by smoke and turned blood-red by flames. Photos from some of those trapped on the beach showed how the smoke turned the sky dark.
Stranded residents and vacationers slept in their cars, and gas stations and surf clubs transformed into evacuation areas.
"The fire just continued to grow," Mark Tregellas, one of the thousands who had to sleep on the beach, told Sky News. "The black started to descend and I couldn't see the hand in front of my face."
Dozens of homes burned before winds changed direction late Tuesday, sparing the rest of the town.
"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," Tregellas said.
Victoria police said officers were working "around the clock" to help the community, with three police vessels that brought police to Mallacoota on Wednesday afternoon with water, a paramedic, food, and medical supplies.
In the New South Wales town of Conjola Park, 89 properties were confirmed destroyed and cars were melted by Tuesday’s fires. More than 100 fires were still burning in the state Wednesday, though none were at an emergency level. Seven people have died this week, including a volunteer firefighter, a man found in a burnt-out car and a father and son who died in their house.
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 15.
Firefighting crews were able to take 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," New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.
The wildfire crisis in Australia has burned around 12.35 million acres of land, with 17 people confirmed dead and more than 1,000 homes destroyed in the past couple of months.
The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, started early after an unusually warm and dry winter. Record-breaking heat and windy conditions triggered wildfires in New South Wales and Queensland states in September.
Some communities canceled New Year’s fireworks celebrations, but Sydney’s popular display over its iconic harbor controversially went ahead in front of more than a million revelers.
The early and devastating start to Australia’s summer wildfires has led authorities to rate this season the worst on record and reignited the debate about whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government has taken enough action on climate change. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas, but Morrison rejected calls last month to downsize Australia’s lucrative coal industry.
Morrison won a surprise third term in May, with his government making a pledge to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26 percent to 28 percent by 2030.
The leader of the minor Australian Greens party, Richard Di Natale, is now demanding a royal commission, the nation’s highest form of inquiry, on the wildfire crisis.
“If he (Morrison) refuses to do so, we will be moving for a parliamentary commission of inquiry with royal commission-like powers as soon as parliament returns,” Di Natale said in a statement.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.