MELBOURNE • Three people have died, four are missing and at least 150 homes have been destroyed as bush fires rage across eastern Australia, the authorities said yesterday.
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (NSW RFS) confirmed that two people had been killed by a fire near Glen Innes, more than 550km north of Sydney.
One body was discovered in a vehicle, and a woman died after being found suffering from burns last Friday.
NSW police said a body was found in a burnt-out home north of Taree, a town about 300km north of Sydney. Police said the home belonged to a 63-year-old woman, but a post-mortem was needed to confirm the identity of the victim and the cause of death.
At least four other people remained unaccounted for yesterday evening, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison saying yesterday afternoon, before the third death was confirmed, that he feared the number of deaths could rise.
"These fires have already claimed two lives... and as we get access to further areas that have been cut off, we are expecting worse news again," he said during a televised news conference in Sydney.
Mr Morrison said reserve members of Australia's armed forces may have to assist emergency services and that support payments were being made available for those directly affected by the fires.
This is one of Australia's worst bush fire seasons, and it is occurring even before the start of the Southern Hemisphere summer, with parts of the country already crippled by severe drought.
NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said little reprieve in fire conditions could be expected over the next week or throughout the summer months of December, January and February.
"The forecast for the balance of the season continues to be driven by above-normal temperatures (and) below-average rainfall to dominate over the coming months," Mr Fitzsimmons said.
On Friday, the state fire authorities issued a record number of emergency warnings, with 17 fires declared to be at an emergency level as high winds and dry conditions fanned the flames. There were 81 fires burning across the state yesterday afternoon, 36 of them uncontained, with an emergency warning on four of them.
Further north, in Queensland, thousands of residents near the resort town of Noosa, on the Sunshine Coast, spent the night in evacuation centres.
Queensland Premier Anastasia Paluszek said the authorities were still assessing if it was safe for nearly 2,000 people to return home.
"These fires can change very quickly, it is very dry at the moment and the winds will pick up this afternoon," Ms Paluszek told reporters.
Meanwhile, in Western Australia, one fire was declared at an emergency level yesterday and the authorities warned of high fire risk throughout the state, the Department of Fire and Emergency Services said.
Australia last week announced a large aid package to help drought-parched communities, as the government faced allegations that it has bungled the response to a crisis made worse by its own climate policies.