Thousands of vacationers and residents remained trapped at a seaside town in southeastern Australia as a raging wildfire surged toward the area Tuesday, amid an explosive bushfire season that has already claimed several dead.
The southeastern town of Mallacoota in Victoria state was shrouded in darkness for most of the day as winds pushed an emergency-level wildfire toward the coast, before skies turned a shade of bright red as the day wore on.
The approaching flames sent around 4,000 people away from their homes to beachside areas. Similar scenes were reported in the neighboring New South Wales state.
"We've got literally hundreds, thousands of people up and down the coast, taking refuge on the beaches," said Shane Fitzsimmons, the commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said there were plans to evacuate the trapped people by sea. There also were grave fears for four people missing. "We can't confirm their whereabouts," he said Tuesday.
Andrews has requested assistance from 70 firefighters from the United States and Canada. Victoria Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp also confirmed “significant” property losses across the region due to the flames.
Vacationers in Mallacoota said they were forced to shelter on beaches or on boats offshore as conditions grew more severe.
"At times it was ferocious, it was like hearing Armageddon, freight trains racing across paddocks. At other times it was eerily quiet," a woman named Mary, who was staying in the town for a few weeks, told Australia's 9News. "We all thought we were prepared for bushfires but I don't think any of us were prepared for the severity of what we witnessed."
People on the beach reported hearing gas canisters exploding as homes burned in the distance.
The blaze has so far been able to be kept back from the shore after a change of wind, but Victoria's state emergency commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters that many trapped on the beach could be forced the spend the night there, the BBC reported.
Fire conditions worsened in Victoria and New South Wales after oppressive heat Monday mixed with strong winds and lightning.
Fire officials showed how serious conditions were in a post on Twitter, where a fire crew was overrun by a bushfire near the town of Nowra.
"The crew was forced to shelter in their truck as the fire front passed through," officials said.
Police in New South Wales said Tuesday that two men, believed to be father and son, died in a house in the wildfire-ravaged southeast town of Cobargo, while there are fears for another man missing.
"They were obviously trying to do their best with the fire as it came through in the early hours of the morning," New South Wales Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys said. “The other person that we are trying to get to, we think that person was trying to defend their property in the early hours of the morning.”
On Monday, a firefighter was killed when extreme winds flipped his truck. Samuel McPaul, 28, was the third volunteer firefighter in New South Wales to have died in the past two weeks. He was an expectant father.
The state's Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said a “significant” number of properties had been destroyed.
Some communities canceled New Year’s fireworks celebrations, but Sydney’s popular display over its iconic harbor went ahead. The city was granted an exemption to a total fireworks ban that is in place there and elsewhere to prevent new wildfires.
The wildfire crisis in Australia has burned around 12.35 million acres of land, with 12 people confirmed dead and more than 1,000 homes destroyed.
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.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.