'Get out while you can': Long queues to flee NSW tourist towns besieged by fires after officials' warnings

Cars line up to leave the town of Batemans Bay in New South Wales on Jan 2, 2020.
Cars line up to leave the town of Batemans Bay in New South Wales on Jan 2, 2020.PHOTO: AFP

BATEMANS BAY, AUSTRALIA - Normally during the Christmas-New Year holiday season, the beach towns of the New South Wales' (NSW) south coast are full of holidaymakers enjoying the sun, seafood and surf.

The population of the region triples and many businesses rely on the summer season for much of their income.

Instead, record bush fires have ripped through many towns, destroying homes, businesses and farms. Warnings from fire officials that another inferno could flare up on Saturday (Jan 4) prompted an exodus on Thursday.

Authorities urged thousands of residents and tourists to leave a coastal strip about 300km long while they could on Thursday. Queues of traffic stretched for kilometres to the north from the main tourist town of Batemans Bay and inland towards Canberra.

Essential supplies have run short since fires swept through Batemans Bay and many other towns and communities on New Year's Eve. On Thursday, there were long queues for petrol and food.

Ms Cathy Gleed was trying to get home to the Central Coast with her husband and mother-in-law but got stuck in a traffic jam and then had another long wait in traffic for fuel, she told The Canberra Times.

"Fuel's the problem, otherwise we would have left three days ago," she said.

The biggest issue though, was the lack of information getting through, with even radio news giving outdated reports about road closures.

"There's a lot of lessons to be learned here," she said.

Authorities said fuel was being trucked in to the region to help people evacuate. Supermarket chains were trying to restock stores.

Some residents have decided to stay despite the warning of dangerous fire conditions on Saturday.

 
 
 
 

Many others have lost homes and narrowly escaped the flames earlier this week.

Milton Leslight, who runs the Beaches and Bush Properties real estate agency in Batemans Bay, was at work on Thursday.

He told the Sydney Morning Herald about 150 properties in the area that he knew had been destroyed, and part of his job was going through a long list of property owners to ring them to tell them their homes had been destroyed.

"It's a catastrophe," he said.

Rugby league star Ron Coote lost his South Coast home in the town of Lake Conjola, north of Ulladulla on the south coast, the Herald reported.

His wife Robin and daughter Natalie were forced to jump into the lake with friends to survive flames that pursued them to the water's edge on Tuesday.

"We had pumps and fire hoses - we had to use the water out of the swimming pool," Mr Coote said.

He had prepared the eaves of the house for the fire, but the flames reached the home regardless.

"She went up mate," Mr Coote said, as he held back tears.