Military forces are being deployed to rescue thousands of people trapped by bushfires in Australia as exhausted firefighters use calmer conditions to prepare for the next flare-ups, expected to hit some regions on January 4.
Troops are now responding to an emerging humanitarian crisis on the NSW south coast, where most towns have run out of food, drinking water and fuel. At least 50,000 people lacked power and communications as of January 2.
Where possible, ships are lifting people off beaches, and some roads have been reopened for convoys escorted by fire engines. Helicopters are dropping Red Cross parcels to towns still inaccessible due to the fires.
About 6,000 people are sheltering on beaches and in surf club buildings at holiday resorts on the south coast of New South Wales (NSW), while another 4,000 in Victoria’s East Gippsland, after fleeing advancing firestorms on Tuesday.
Most of the south coast has been declared a no-go region ahead of the expected deterioration in conditions on January 4. All tourists will be evacuated so that firefighters can focus on protecting residents.
Roads into the coastal area will then be closed. The Rural Fire Service says it will not be able to contain the biggest fires before or during Saturday. Residents are relying on radio broadcasts for emergency information.
So far it is known that more than 380 homes were destroyed on the south coast; this tally will rise as more towns are accessed.
Conditions also remain severe on the central coast of NSW, much of South Australia and parts of Western Australia and Tasmania. It appears likely that the area around Adelaide will become the other main crisis zone at the weekend.
In Victoria, naval ships are taking trapped people off beaches and helicopters are flying in hundreds of additional firefighters and lifting out hospital patients ahead of the expected deterioration on Saturday.
At least 17 people are missing in the Victoria fires. Many towns remain inaccessible; helicopters are dropping supplies. Victoria will also become a crisis zone at the weekend, authorities say.
A cool weather front has brought some respite for firefighters, but authorities warned that it could be weeks before the bushfire threat is significantly reduced.
“The danger is not over,” said Andrew Crisp, the Emergency Management Commissioner for Victoria, who described the conditions on Wednesday as “dynamic and dangerous.” “There’s a lot of fire edge,” Crisp warned.
In NSW, rural fire service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said his service was preparing as “much protection and as much consolidation as we can ahead of deteriorating weather conditions expected on Saturday (January 4)”, when temperatures on the south coast will reach 38 degrees centigrade.
Residents and holiday-makers displaced by the south coast fires spent New Year’s Eve huddled on beaches or in makeshift evacuation centers while rescuers brought in oxygen for people with respiratory issues.
Eyewitness accounts are now seeping out. Al Baxter, a former rugby union international, spent the night at Malua Bay on the south coast. He told The Guardian:
“Everyone was on the beach, just covered in ash and smoke. There was a strange calmness. People were as close to the water’s edge as they could [be]. People were literally just lying on the beach trying to keep out of the smoke and ash.”
Residents told an Asia Times reporter in the region that it was “like Armageddon.”
“It was as black as midnight, with tinges of red. It was like we were fighting fires in the darkness,” said Chad Staples, who helped rescue hundreds of animals trapped in a zoo at Mogo on the NSW south coast.
“Thankfully prayers were answered and the wind changed. Then we were able to get on top of it. Right now we feel that we’ve got a reprieve.”
Strong winds swept the fires eastward from inaccessible forest ravines to population centers, giving residents only minutes to evacuate. The flames leapt 30 meters into the air ahead of the storm, prompting firefighters to abandon any attempts to extinguish or even contain the roaring inferno.
“We got a (radio) message that we should concentrate on protecting lives. We couldn’t save the houses, so we didn’t even try,” one firefighter said.
All power and communication services have been severed in the affected area of the south coast, complicating efforts to rescue stranded residents.
The smoke from the south coast was visible 2,000 kilometers away on the south island of New Zealand.
Two naval vessels, including an amphibious landing ship, are sailing from Sydney to help marine police and rescue services evacuate people from the south coast, and air force Chinook helicopters will be deployed in Gippsland, southeast of Melbourne.
Army and navy helicopters will also ferry food and relief firefighters to communities isolated by the bushfires.
Victorian authorities have asked fire services in the United States and Canada to send additional backup personnel to relieve tired firefighters. They are mostly specialists who direct air water bombing operations.
Four people are missing in Gippsland and one on the NSW south coast as firefighters comb dozens of towns devastated by Tuesday’s blazes, which were so fierce that they created their own weather systems.
It was earlier confirmed that nine people died protecting their homes in NSW; 15 have been killed elsewhere, including three firefighters, since early November.
Fire authorities say “hundreds” of properties were destroyed by fire on the south coast of NSW on December 31; many towns are still inaccessible. Exit roads out of the coast are also still closed for most communities, giving only sea access.
At least one home was lost in a fire in the Derwent Valley in Tasmania; fires in South Australia and Western Australia were contained. About 1,000 homes have been lost since the fires began, mainly in NSW.
There are still 110 fires burning in NSW, spanning more than 1,300 kilometers of coastline from Queensland in the north to Victoria in the south. Individual blazes have joined to create three mega-fires north, west and south of Sydney that are not likely to be extinguished until there is heavy rainfall.
There are concerns that three fires in Gippsland will combine, creating a massive threat covering 500,000 hectares. Two other fires in the border area between Victoria and NSW also appear likely to join up, covering at least 300,000 hectares
Australia’s spring weather, from September to November, was the driest ever recorded, and the second-hottest; on December 18 there was an average maximum temperature of 41.9 degrees centigrade, which was also a record.
The mix of extreme heat, low humidity and dryness created a potent cocktail of conditions that ignited as winds picked up on December 31.
However, the two climatic patterns that have brought hot winds from the west to the eastern states, a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) and a negative Southern Annular Mode (SAM), are starting to weaken, offering hope that more moisture will start to build within the next few months.
The Bureau of Meteorology said on January 1 that the IOD and SAM, which draw moisture away from Australia and block systems that normally deliver monsoon rains in the north, have both shifted to neutral phases, though it will be months before very much impact is seen on the weather.
Conditions will worsen drastically on Friday in South Australia and Saturday in eastern New South Wales and Victoria, with temps in the mid-40s in some areas and winds of up to 100 kilometers per hour.
“The damage from the positive IOD and the negative SAM has been done – the landscape is extremely dry. This means that fire danger will remain high for some time,” said long-range BOM forecaster Andrew Watkins.
“And it certainly does not mean the end of the drought – that will take some time, many months, especially for those rivers to rise again and for the soils to even reach average wetness,” Watkins cautioned.
Editor’s Note: This story will be updated with breaking developments