SYDNEY – The Australian navy was racing on Friday to rescue thousands of people stranded on the east coast of the fire-ravaged country as a searing weather front was set to whip up more blazes across the states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW).
The premier of Victoria, Daniel Andrews, declared a state of disaster for the first time ever, giving authorities broad powers to compel people to leave their properties and take control of services.
Wildfires have already killed two in the state and 17 are missing with grave fears for their safety.
NSW also issued a state of emergency as tens of thousands of holidaymakers were urged to leave national parks and remote tourist areas.
The navy’s HMAS Choules was set to evacuate “at first light” around 800 out of 4,000 people stranded on a beach in the isolated town of Mallacoota in far-east Victoria, with women, children, the elderly and sick going first.
Yet with all roads blocked, sea transport is the only way out of the stricken town and each round trip could take a day or more. Forecasters are warning that temperatures will soar above 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit) on Saturday, bringing a return of wild winds.
“It is forecast we will see dry thunderstorms coming across the state and the potential of lightning strikes mid- to late afternoon,” Andrew Crisp, emergency management commissioner for Victoria, told ABC news.
He urged people in the area to leave their homes immediately and not count on luck to avoid disaster.
“This is your opportunity to get out. It is not just the fires we know. It is the new fires that might start today.”
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had called for calm on Thursday, before visiting the fire-devastated NSW town of Cobargo, where he was not entirely welcome.
Video showed Morrison confronted by a group of angry locals, one of whom shouted he should be “ashamed of himself” and said he had “left the country to burn.
Speaking to ABC news, Morrison said he understood there were strong feelings. “They have lost everything and there are still some very dangerous days ahead,” he said.
Morrison’s conservative government has long drawn criticism for not doing enough to address climate change as a cause of Australia’s savage drought and fires.
Bushfires so far this season have scorched more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of bushland and destroyed over 1,000 homes, including 381 homes destroyed on the south coast just this week.