SYDNEY • Australian military helicopters and ships were deployed yesterday to help thousands of people cut off by wildfires raging across the south-east as the death toll from the national crisis continued to climb.
Some 4,000 holidaymakers and locals remain stranded in the remote township of Mallacoota in Victoria state after a bush fire tore through the community on Tuesday, forcing people to flee to the beach or escape by boats.
The terrifying scenes were repeated in dozens of small towns in rural, forested parts of the state and across the border in New South Wales, as the infernos turned the sky blood red. Embers and ash also rained down on locals and tourists during the peak summer holiday season.
"The fire was ferocious; it was angry," said Ms Lorena Granados, who battled in vain to save her home in the small town of Mogo.
"The fire was just throwing the water back on us. It was like a demon attacking us."
Seven people, including a volunteer firefighter, have been killed this week in New South Wales, police said, taking the confirmed national death toll since the blazes broke out several weeks ago to at least 16.
A man was found dead yesterday in Victoria's East Gippsland region. Several people are unaccounted for, and more than 150 fires are still burning in the two states.
With extreme temperatures and strong winds forecast for Saturday, the authorities fear the death toll will rise.
The crisis has triggered an emotive debate about the impact of global warming in Australia, the world's driest inhabited continent. It has also fuelled criticism of Prime Minister Scott Morrison's conservative government, which strongly advocates for the nation's massive coal-export industry and rejects criticism that it is not doing enough to curb emissions.
There appears no end in sight to the bush-fire emergency, which is impacting all of Australia's six states amid a prolonged drought gripping much of the country.
Firefighters were taking advantage of cooler weather yesterday to try to contain blazes, re-open roads and reach isolated communities left without power and communications. Helicopters will airlift supplies to cut-off townships and deploy fresh firefighting crews, while boats are delivering food and water to some coastal areas.
Residents who returned to villages and towns across the southeast found scores of homes destroyed. The New South Wales fire service put the tally of razed properties this week at 176, and about 1,000 since the crisis began.
In Batemans Bay, people queued around the block, waiting to enter a crowded supermarket to buy provisions. The emergency has placed scrutiny on Australia's capacity to combat blazes that have spread over massive areas, pushing fire services largely manned by volunteers to their limits.
Almost 4 million ha of forest and bushland - an area almost twice the size of Wales - has been destroyed in New South Wales alone. Fires are so intense that they are generating their own weather systems, with dry thunderstorms sparking new blazes.
They have already pumped out more than half of the country's annual carbon dioxide emissions, and smoke has drifted some 2,000km to New Zealand, turning the sky orange early yesterday in the South Island city of Dunedin.
Residents of the Australian capital, Canberra, woke to a new year with air quality more than 23 times the level deemed hazardous as bush-fire smoke enveloped the city in a toxic haze.