Australian navy races to rescue thousands as new fire threat looms

In a photo released by Australia's Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning on Jan 2, 2020, smoke is seen rising from wildfires burning in East Gippsland, Victoria. PHOTO: AP
Smoke and wildfire rage behind Lake Conjola, Australia, on Jan 2, 2020. PHOTO: AP
A helicopter drops water on a bush fire outside Batemans Bay in New South Wales, on Jan 2, 2020. PHOTO: AFP
The remains of a house destroyed by a bush fire outside Batemans Bay in New South Wales, on Jan 2, 2020. PHOTO: AFP
Wildfires rage under plumes of smoke in Bairnsdale, Australia, on Dec 30, 2019. PHOTO: AP

SYDNEY (REUTERS) - The Australian navy raced on Friday (Jan 3) to rescue thousands of people stranded on the east coast of the fire-ravaged country as a searing weather front is set to whip up more blazes across the states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW).

The premier of Victoria, Mr Daniel Andrews, declared a state of disaster for the first time ever, giving the authorities broad powers to compel people to leave their properties and take control of services.

NSW also issued a state of emergency as tens of thousands of holidaymakers were urged to leave national parks and remote tourist areas.

Another death from the fires in NSW was confirmed on Friday, taking the toll in the state this week to eight. Two people have died in Victoria's fires, and 28 others are unaccounted for.

The navy's HMAS Choules and Sycamore started the evacuation of nearly 1,000 of the 4,000 people stranded on a beach in the isolated town of Malla­coota in far-east Victoria, federal member of Parliament Darren Chester tweeted on Friday morning.

With all roads blocked, sea transport and some airlifts are the only way out of the stricken town, and each round trip by sea could take a day or more.

Forecasters are warning that temperatures will soar above 40 deg C on Saturday, bringing a return of wild winds.

"It is forecast we will see dry thunderstorms coming across the state and the potential of lightning strikes mid- to late-afternoon," Mr Andrew Crisp, emergency management commissioner for Victoria, told ABC news.

He urged people in the area to leave their homes immediately and not count on luck to avoid disaster.

"This is your opportunity to get out. It is not just the fires we know. It is the new fires that might start today."

Prime Minister Scott Morrison called for calm on Thursday before visiting the fire-devastated NSW town of Cobargo, where he was not entirely welcome.

Video showed Mr Morrison confronted by a group of angry locals, one of whom shouted he should be "ashamed of himself" and said he had "left the country to burn".

Speaking to ABC news, Mr Morrison said he understood there were strong feelings. "They have lost everything and there are still some very dangerous days ahead," he said.

His conservative government has long drawn criticism for not doing enough to address climate change as a cause of Australia's savage drought and fires.

Bush fires so far this season have scorched more than four million hectares of bushland and destroyed over 1,000 homes, including 381 homes destroyed on the south coast just this week.

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