BATEMANS BAY/MELBOURNE • Tens of thousands of holidaymakers fled seaside towns along Australia's east coast yesterday ahead of bush fires, as military ships and helicopters began rescuing thousands more trapped by the blazes.
Fuelled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria, threatening many towns.
Worse is expected by the weekend, with the return of hot and windy conditions that will likely fuel the spread of fires.
Temperatures are expected to soar above 40 deg C along the south coast tomorrow.
"It is going to be a very dangerous day. It's going to be a very difficult day," NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
Ahead of the weekend, NSW declared a week-long state of emergency starting yesterday. In Canberra, the Australian Capital Territory declared a state of alert.
The authorities yesterday issued "Leave Zone" notices for a 300km strip from Nowra on the NSW coast south to the Victorian border.
The NSW Rural Fire Service also issued leave notices for several areas inland, including tourist resorts in the Snowy Mountains, urging people to leave by 10am local time today because of extreme fire danger. Several major fires are threatening the area.
More than 50,000 people were without power along the coast and some towns had no access to drinking water yesterday.
The authorities are urging a mass exodus right at the peak of the summer holiday season, warning that extreme heat forecast for the weekend will further stoke the fires.
"The priority today is fighting fires and evacuating, getting people to safety," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said in Sydney yesterday.
"There are parts of both Victoria and New South Wales which have been completely devastated, with a loss of power and communications," he added.
He also said the fires will burn for "many, many months... unlike a flood, where the water will recede. In a fire like this, it goes on and it will continue to go on... until we can get some decent rain."
Eight people have been killed by wildfires in NSW and Victoria since Monday, and 18 are still missing, officials said yesterday.
Thousands of people, meanwhile, remain stranded in the south-eastern coastal town of Mallacoota in Victoria, which has been cut off after a major fire. About 4,000 residents and visitors have been sheltering on the beach since Monday night.
The navy's HMAS Choules arrived yesterday to begin evacuating people. The vessel can carry up to 1,000 people at a time and it is expected to make two or three voyages over coming days, the state authorities said.
Ms Michelle Roberts, who owns the Croajingolong Cafe in Mallacoota, told Reuters by phone: "It is hell on earth. It is the worst anybody's ever seen."
She hoped to get her 18-year-old daughter onto the ship to escape the fires and thick smoke that are engulfing the town.
Thousands of people have already fled the greater adjoining region of East Gippsland in Victoria, in one of the largest evacuations in Australia since the northern city of Darwin evacuated more than 35,000 people in the aftermath of Cyclone Tracy in 1974.
Emergency Management Victoria's deputy commissioner Debra Abbott yesterday said people living in alpine areas of the state as well as East Gippsland and the Upper Murray region had a 24-hour window of opportunity to leave, or risk being cut off by smoke and flames.
"We want them to leave now," Ms Abbott said. "We don't want those people to become isolated like some of the communities down at East Gippsland."
Five military helicopters were en route to the south coast to back up firefighters and bring in supplies like water and diesel, the Australian Defence Force said yesterday.
The aircraft will also be used to evacuate the injured as well as elderly and young people.
Mr Morrison visited the fire-ravaged NSW coastal town of Cobargo yesterday but was heckled by angry locals. The Prime Minister, forced to defend his government's limited action on climate change, blamed a three-year drought and lack of hazard reduction for the unprecedented extent and duration of this season's bush fires.
But many Australians have accused his government of poor planning, lack of funding for emergency services and lack of sympathy after he went on holiday last month as fires raged around Sydney.