SANCTUARY POINT, Australia – An Australian navy troop carrier was preparing to evacuate as many as 4,000 people trapped in a remote region of Victoria state by advancing wildfires that have consumed an area almost the size of West Virginia.

The situation in Mallacoota – a beach town popular with families over the holiday season – is so dire that officials spent Thursday afternoon assessing who would be capable of climbing ladders from small boats to a navy ship anchored offshore, designed to carry 300 soldiers and 23 tanks.

Those unable to climb the ladders and wishing to leave will be flown out by helicopter, although heavy smoke that has reached as far as New Zealand is making flying hazardous.

Some 17 people have been killed since the fires started in October, eight of them this week. At least another 17 are missing, and more than 1,000 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.

More than 200 fires are burning in the continent’s southeast, and firefighters fear the worst may be yet to come. Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit and high winds are forecast for Saturday, which could whip up existing blazes and trigger new fires up to seven miles from the main front.

In Mallacoota, families cried and hugged on Thursday as they discussed whether to take up the evacuation offer or wait with their cars and belongings for the fires to burn out, which could take weeks. The pall of smoke contributed to the sense of desperation.

“You can feel it in your eyes. You can feel it in your lungs, and that’s made people even more desperate to get out,” Elias Clure, a journalist in the town, said on the Australian Broadcasting Corp. network.

“It is hell on Earth,” Michelle Roberts, owner of the Croajingolong Cafe, told Reuters.

Farther north, in New South Wales state, the main coastal highway was cut off when a fire that had been under control flared up between the regional centers of Nowra and Ulladulla.

On a cloudless day, smoke reduced visibility on the road to six feet in some places, making driving for firefighters highly dangerous. Three have died in road accidents in the past few weeks.

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service asked tourists vacationing in a 150-mile strip on the state’s south coast to leave Thursday morning. Lines of cars up to a mile long could be seen at gas stations as drivers waited to refuel and get out.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked people to be patient as they navigated congested roads. Criticized last week for vacationing in Hawaii while the fires burned, Morrison was heckled Thursday when he visited Cobargo, a town in southern New South Wales where most of the main street was wiped out by fire Monday.

Earlier, he emphasized that the primary responsibility for fighting fires lies with state governments, while taking credit for making military resources available.

“It’s important as we work through those evacuations that people continue to remain patient and remain calm and to follow instructions,” Morrison said at a news conference Thursday. “What we cannot have, in these situations, is governments stepping over the top of each other in a national disaster like this.”

The premier of New South Wales, Gladys Berejiklian, visited towns on Wednesday that were virtually wiped out, and she passed on messages to family members from residents who could not reach the outside world because phone networks had failed. “They wanted their relatives to know that they were okay,” Berejiklian’s spokesman said.

One problem facing those who have lost homes or fled with few possessions is Australia’s almost-ubiquitous use of contactless payments. With even landlines down, banks closed and ATMs empty, the cashless economy in some areas seized up, according to fire brigade officials.

In the town of Sanctuary Point, about three hours south of Sydney and a few miles from a major blaze, about 400 anxious residents attended a briefing given Thursday by the regional fire commander at the local country club, which is also a designated evacuation center.

With conditions deteriorating, Superintendent Mark Williams said residents should leave soon if they are not physically capable of defending their homes from the encroaching flames.

“What we have got is a massive event in front of us,” he said in the briefing, which was attended by representatives of the Australian Red Cross and state police. “If you’re not prepared at the moment, you are running out of time.”

For residents planning to stay and who need medical assistance, a local doctor said she would open her clinic to the community all weekend and provide free advice over the phone.

“That’s what makes Australia great,” Williams responded, triggering applause in the room.

As a dry continent, Australia has a history of wildfires. But the current crisis and the earlier-than-usual start to the summer fire season have triggered angst over what many perceive to be a tepid response by the Australian government to the threat of climate change. In particular, the government has faced criticism for appearing reluctant to move the country away from coal, one of the nation’s top export earners.

December was among the two hottest months on record in Australia, and 2019 was the hottest and driest year on record. Climate scientists have tied the severity of the wildfire season overall, along with the extraordinary heat waves this fall and winter, to climate change.

Morrison, however, said no individual fire can be attributed to climate change.

But as Australia’s population grows, the loss of life and property to fires will increase, said Andrew Sullivan, who leads a fire research team at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, a government agency.

“It’s a natural part of the Australian environment,” he said in a telephone interview. “When conditions are bad, there is not a lot anyone can do about it.”

While Australia burns, neighboring Indonesia is facing extreme weather of a different sort.

Severe flooding and landslides caused by torrential rain have killed 26 people, submerged dozens of neighborhoods and displaced tens of thousands in the capital, Jakarta.

Australia's wildfires