Ships, helicopters start rescuing thousands from Australia bush fires
Many locals, tourists stranded as Aussie wildfires burn; smoke forms a haze in New Zealand
BATEMANS BAY/MELBOURNE: Tens of thousands of tourists fled seaside towns on Australia's east coast yesterday ahead of advancing bush fires, as military ships and helicopters began rescuing thousands more trapped by the blazes.
Fuelled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are burning across the south-eastern states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, threatening several towns.
Long queues formed outside supermarkets and petrol stations as residents and tourists sought supplies to either bunker down or escape the fires, emptying shelves of staples such as bread and milk.
More than 50,000 people were without power and some towns had no access to drinking water.
The authorities urged a mass exodus from several towns on Australia's south-east coast, an area hugely popular in the current summer peak holiday season, warning that extreme heat forecast for the weekend will further stoke the fires.
"The priority today is fighting fires and evacuating, getting people to safety," Prime Minister Scott Morrison told reporters in Sydney.
"There are parts of both Victoria and NSW that have been completely devastated, with a loss of power and communications."
Eight people have been killed by the wildfires in the eastern states of NSW and Victoria since Monday and 18 are still missing, officials said yesterday.
A naval ship arrived yesterday at the south-eastern coastal town of Mallacoota, where 4,000 residents and visitors have been stranded on the beach since Monday night.
Naval officials said they would open registration for evacuation yesterday afternoon, with the HMAS Choules able to carry up to 1,000 people on the first trip. The ship is expected to make two or three voyages over the coming days, the state authorities said.
"It is 16 to 17 hours to the closest boat port, then we have to come back," HMAS Choules commander Scott Houlihan said yesterday afternoon.
He added that leaving by boat was the only way out of the town.
Thousands of people had already been evacuated from the greater adjoining region of East Gippsland in Victoria, one of the largest evacuations in the country since the northern city of Darwin evacuated over 35,000 people in the aftermath of cyclone Tracy in 1974.
"It is hell on earth. It is the worst anybody's ever seen," Ms Michelle Roberts said by telephone from the Croajingolong Cafe she owns in Mallacoota.
Ms Roberts hoped to get her 18-year-old daughter onto the ship to escape the thick smoke that is engulfing the town.
Five military helicopters were en route to the south coast to back up firefighters and transport supplies such as water and diesel, the Australian Defence Force said yesterday.
The aircraft will also be used to evacuate injured, elderly and young people.
Smoke from the bush fires has created a haze across New Zealand thousands of kilometres away, with normally white glaciers turning a shade of caramel, according to social media posts yesterday.
"Smoke which has travelled around 2,000km across the Tasman Sea can clearly be seen," New Zealand's official forecaster MetService tweeted.
"Visibility in the smoke haze is as low as 10km in the worst affected areas." - REUTERS, AFP