By Sonali Paul
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – Thousands of tourists and residents swarmed to beaches on Australia’s east coast on Tuesday to escape fierce wildfires bearing down on several seaside towns at the peak of the summer holiday period.
Government officials called for Australian military support and assistance from U.S. and Canadian fire crews as authorities confirmed two people had died overnight, taking to 11 the total deaths in wildfires since the beginning of October.
The huge bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres), with new blazes sparked into life almost daily by extremely hot and windy conditions in bushland left tinder dry after a three-year drought.
Fuelled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are now burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, threatening several towns.
“It’s going to be a very long, difficult dangerous night still ahead,” Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, told a briefing in Sydney. “It’s going to be another difficult day again tomorrow.”
Authorities said the main firefront was moving up the coast and warned those in its path to seek shelter close to the beach.
About 4,000 people in the town of Mallacoota in Victoria headed to the waterfront after the main road was cut off. Those who could not make it there scrambled for shelter in a gymnasium and other public buildings, as emergency sirens wailed.
Some of those trapped in the town posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.
It looked “a lot like Armageddon,” said David Jeffrey, the owner of the Wave Oasis guesthouse, adding, “It’s terrifying.”
Hunkered down in a building on the town’s main street, a community radio presenter, Francesca Winterson, described the situation as “absolutely horrific”.
She told Australian Broadcasting Corp radio, “We have got blustering winds, we are surrounded by red sky, choking dust, choking smoke and embers are falling on the town and we are completely isolated.”
Three teams of firefighters defended the town in a bid to beat back the blaze, and authorities said that by late afternoon the worst danger had passed.
Fisherman Steve Casement said he had lost his house in Mallacoota to the fires.
“We are stuck here now,” he told Reuters by telephone. “Everyone is pretty shocked at the moment, most of my mates are in the same position.
“Right now, I am on a trailer watching the town burn down, listening to gas bottles explode at some poor bugger’s home and seeing smoke all around me.”
Several hundreds of kilometres north, people were agonising over whether to evacuate or stay, as fires approached the NSW coastal town of Batemans Bay.
“We are near the water, so in a safe location, but it’s still a very difficult situation as the whole town is in lockdown,” Alison Myers, the manager of the Bay Breeze Boutique Accommodation motel, told Reuters.
“There is no access to food … as everything is shut.”
James Findlay, a Melbourne-based broadcaster, said his parents’ home in the town was gutted after palm trees on the lawn caught fire. The couple were vacationing in New Zealand.
“There were a lot of family heirlooms in there,” he told Reuters. “A lot of priceless memories.”
The fires have been spread across four states, with fronts stretching hundreds of kilometres in some cases, affecting many towns and rural areas.
The two people who died overnight were believed to have been a father and son protecting their property near the NSW inland town of Cobargo, police said. A third was missing, feared dead, in New South Wales, while four more were unaccounted for in Victoria.
Bushfires also continued to burn on the outskirts of Sydney, cloaking the harbour city in smoke ahead of a fireworks display planned for New Year’s Eve.
Authorities said it would go ahead, despite some public calls for the fireworks to be cancelled, in solidarity with fire-hit areas in New South Wales.
“Many of us have mixed feelings about this evening, but the important thing we take out of this is that we’re a resilient state,” NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters.
“I don’t want to take a second away from the deep sense of loss and tragedy many people are feeling.”