Australia launched a major operation on Wednesday, deploying navy ships, military aircraft and emergency rescue crews in a bid to reach the thousands of people left stranded in a number of popular tourist towns after bushfires wreaked havoc along the coast.
Three people died within 24 hours and five others remain missing after out-of-control blazes tore through the southeast of Australia, destroying dozens of homes and leaving several small towns in ruins.
Emergency workers discovered the body of a man on Wednesday on the southern coast of New South Wales (NSW), according to the local Rural Fire Service (RFS).
The death toll is likely to rise, NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said. “We still have grave concerns for [another person],” Fitzsimmons told reporters in Sydney. There is “limited access to the remote area to try to identify and confirm one way or the other the status of that person.”
In total, there have been 14 fire-related deaths across Australia since fires broke out in spring. Among the deaths were three volunteer firefighters.
Military rescue missions
Emergency services are trying to provide humanitarian relief and assess the damage. Navy ships that can lower ramps to the shore were being sent to coastal towns where people fled to beaches to escape the flames.
“It is very difficult to get to settlements like Mallacoota which is totally cut off by fires,” Defense Personnel Minister Darren Chester told national broadcaster ABC. “Navy ships are the only way to get in supplies and evacuate people in numbers.”
Black Hawk helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft have also been deployed, along with military personnel. The rescue process is expected to take several days.
“We haven’t been able to get access via roads or via aircraft. It’s been… too dangerous and we simply can’t access, nor can the people in these areas get out,” Fitzsimmons said.
He explained emergency services faced a “real challenge” in assisting injured people, some who reportedly are suffering burns, in remote areas.
Fires likely to worsen
New Year’s Eve proved to be one of the worst days yet in the country’s months-long struggle to control the blazes but cooler conditions on Wednesday allowed firefighters to assess the scale of the fires.
In the state of Victoria, a number of homes and lives remained under threat.
More than 100 fires continued to rip through NSW alone. Thousands of firefighters were working on the ground, NSW authorities reported.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said authorities were working to restore communications with areas that had been cut off, and warned conditions would worsen over the weekend.
“Weather conditions on Saturday will be as bad as they were” on Tuesday, Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.
New blazes are sparked daily due to extremely hot and windy conditions. Recently, dry lightning strikes have created blazes themselves.
More than four million hectares of land across southeast Australia has been destroyed by the fires.
Haze reaches New Zealand
Smoke from Australia’s wildfires has drifted as far as New Zealand. Daytime skies in the country’s South Island have turned orange as a result of the haze making its way across the Tasman Sea.
mvb/se (AFP, Reuters)