An image obtained on January 3, 2020 shows evacuees being transported by landing craft to MV Sycamore at Mallacoota, Australia. (Photo: Agencies)
SYDNEY/MELBOURNE - Australian firefighters were set for a dangerous day on Saturday as fires in New South Wales and Victoria states were expected to burn uncontrollably in temperatures above 40C (104F) and shifting, strong winds that will fan and spread the flames.
Authorities have said conditions could be worse than New Year's Eve on Tuesday, when out-of-control fires forced thousands of residents and summer holidaymakers to seek refuge on beaches as the flames burnt massive tracts of bushland.
"It's going to be a long and difficult day for everybody," NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters.
More than 100 fires were burning in NSW on Saturday and more than half were not contained, Fitz Simmons said, adding winds that will shift throughout the day will spread the blazes.
"We know the fires we've got already ... but what we need to be vigilant about today as well is the prospect of any new fires that might start under these hot, dry, windy conditions," he said.
In Victoria, where a state of disaster has been declared, there were evacuation recommendations for six fires, emergency warnings for six others and dozens still burning.
"We still have those dynamic and dangerous conditions, the low humidity, the strong winds, and what underpins that, the state is tinder dry. It is really, really dry at the moment," Andrew Crisp, Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner, told reporters.
Authorities had urged people in areas covered by the state of disaster to evacuate, and said on Saturday that tens of thousands of the estimated 100,000 population had left for safety.
"But there are still significant populations in those areas," said Graham Ashton, Chief Commissioner of Victoria Police. Those who stayed needed to keep monitoring emergency announcements and fire tracking apps, he said.
There have been 10 deaths from the fires in NSW and Victoria so far this week, about half the total toll for the current fire season. Twenty-one people remain unaccounted for in Victoria, down from 28 reported on Friday.
The focus on Saturday is preventing more loss of life, authorities said.
To that end, national parks have been closed and people strongly urged earlier this week to evacuate large parts of NSW's south coast and Victoria's north eastern regions, magnets for holidaymakers at the peak of Australia's summer school holidays.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has declared a week-long state of emergency.
"All of the major road networks in NSW are still open, but we can't guarantee that beyond the next few hours. So, there are still windows for people it get out if they wish to do so."
The Australian Navy ship HMAS Sycamore delivered the first load of evacuees from the isolated town of Malla-coota on Victoria's east coast to near Melbourne, with a second vessel carrying around 900 people to dock late on Saturday.
The town was cut off on New Year's Eve by fires, and around 4,000 people were stranded on the beach. Road access is still blocked and heavy smoke has limited air access, leaving sea transport as the only reliable route out.