SYDNEY – Australia authorized the forced evacuation of residents Thursday amid a mass exodus of tourists from fire-ravaged coastal communities ahead of a weekend heat wave expected to fan its deadly bush fires.
Catastrophic blazes ripped through the southeast on New Year’s Eve, killing at least eight people and stranding vacationers.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a seven-day state of emergency that allows for forced evacuations beginning Friday. It was the third time the declaration has been issued in Australia’s most populated region this fire season.
“We don’t take these decisions lightly but we also want to make sure we’re taking every single precaution to be prepared for what could be a horrible day on Saturday,” she said.
It came after the NSW Rural Fire Service declared a “tourist leave zone” stretching about 200 km (125 miles) from the popular holiday spot of Bateman’s Bay along the picturesque coast to neighboring Victoria state, where people are also being urged to flee.
At least 18 people are known to have died in one of Australia’s most devastating bush fire seasons yet, and there are growing fears the toll could rise dramatically, with officials in Victoria saying 17 people were missing in the state.
Visitors are being warned to leave the affected areas before Saturday, when another heat wave is expected to sweep the country, with gusting winds and temperatures above 40 degrees (104 F).
That weather will create conditions officials say will be as bad as — if not worse than — Tuesday, the deadliest day in a months-long bush fire crisis.
Many tourists and residents spent two nights isolated with no electricity or communications before authorities on Thursday declared some roads safe to use.
NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance called it the “largest evacuation of people out of the region ever,” with a line of cars stretching along the highway toward Sydney as thousands flee the area.
One driver said it took her three hours to travel just 50 km (30 miles).
NSW Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said firefighters would be unable to extinguish or even control the raging blazes.
“The message is we’ve got so much fire in that area, we have no capacity to contain these fires,” he told ABC.
“We just need to make sure that people are not in front of them.”
John Steele, 73, who lives outside the south coast town of Merimbula, said some people were panicking amid the evacuation warnings.
“There’s so much misinformation on Facebook and on the web,” he said.
Steele said the region had been “chaotic” in recent days as fresh produce and fuel supplies ran low, but he and his wife were staying put for now.
“We’re happy to see every man and his dog leave town,” he said. “We are cautious, we have our bags packed.”
The number of homes confirmed destroyed in recent days has topped 400, with the figure expected to rise as firefighters reach communities still isolated by flames.
Two navy ships arrived in Mallacoota — where people huddled on the foreshore for hours on New Year’s Eve as a fire bore down on the remote town — to begin evacuating up to 4,000 people in an operation officials say could take weeks.
Victoria joint bush fire task force commander Doug Laidlaw said the first evacuees would be moved onto the vessels Friday morning, with children, the sick and elderly taking priority.
“If we need to reset and (return) again, weather permitting, that is exactly what will happen,” he said.
Military aircraft have also been working with emergency crews to drop relief supplies into isolated areas and continue assessing the extensive fire damage.
This season’s blazes have destroyed more than 1,300 homes and scorched over 5.5 million hectares (13.5 million acres) across the country — an area far greater than Denmark or the Netherlands.
Suburbs of cities like Sydney and Melbourne, home to several million people, have also been hit by bush fires.
The blazes have shrouded Australia’s capital, Canberra, in an acrid smoke haze that has traveled as far as New Zealand, turning the air over glacier peaks brown.
The unprecedented crisis has sparked street protests calling on the government to immediately act on climate change, which scientists say is creating a longer and more intense bush fire season.
Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under increasing pressure for his actions, which included holidaying in Hawaii as the disaster unfolded and reiterating his support for Australia’s lucrative — but heavily polluting — coal mining industry.
In his first official news conference since the latest blazes flared, Morrison said Thursday that “every absolute effort” was being made to assist affected communities.
“The best way to respond is the way that Australians have always responded to these events and that is to put our confidence in those who are fighting these fires,” he said, while defending Australia’s climate change policies as “sensible.”