Thousands of tourists holidaying on the south coast of Australia have been told to evacuate before the weekend when extreme weather is set to intensify deadly wildfires sweeping through the region.
The Rural Fire Service said anyone in the southeastern tip of New South Wales state should get out in the next two days. The 230 kilometer-stretch from Batemans Bay down to the Victoria state border has been ravaged by fires this week, as infernos turned the sky blood red and rained down embers and ash on communities.
At least seven people have been killed on the south coast of New South Wales this week and hundreds of properties destroyed. Thousands of locals and tourists have been stranded in the rural, forested region at the peak of the summer holiday season as firefighters try to take advantage of cooler weather Thursday to contain blazes and re-open roads. Isolated communities in Victoria also remain cut-off, including the township of Mallacoota, where some 4,000 people were forced to shelter on the beach or escape by boat as wildfires swept through.
The scale of the crisis, played out in real-time on social media as people posted footage and images of raging fire-fronts bearing down on communities, has shocked Australia and fueled an emotional debate about the impact of global warming in the world’s driest-inhabited continent. Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s government is coming under sustained criticism from environmentalists and the opposition after repeatedly downplaying any links to climate change, and for not taking stronger steps to curb emissions.
At least 16 people have died since fires broke out months ago during the southern hemisphere winter, an unusually early start to the season amid a widespread, prolonged drought gripping much of the nation. While New South Wales and Victoria have been the hardest hit, fires are burning in all six Australian states.
With several people unaccounted for, authorities fear the death toll will rise. Military helicopters and ships have been scrambled to bring in supplies and for potential evacuations if roads can’t be re-opened.
Residents returned to villages and towns across the southeast Wednesday to find scores of homes destroyed – the New South Wales fire service put the tally of razed properties this week at 176, adding to more than 900 burned since the crisis began.
Social media was awash with images of buildings reduced to charred rubble and burnt-out cars. Main roads were clogged as people seized the opportunity to move to safer areas, and in the town of Eden police had to direct traffic as long lines of cars waited to get fuel. In Batemans Bay, people stood in line around the block, waiting to enter a crowded supermarket to buy provisions.
The emergency has placed scrutiny on Australia’s capacity to combat blazes that have spread over massive areas, pushing fire services largely manned by volunteers to their limits. Almost 4 million hectares of forest and bushland – an area almost twice the size of Wales – have been destroyed in New South Wales alone.