SYDNEY • Navy ships plucked hundreds of people from beaches as tens of thousands across three states were urged to flee yesterday ahead of the arrival of hot weather and strong winds forecast to worsen Australia's already devastating wildfires.
More than 200 fires were burning, and warnings of extreme danger to come today set in motion one of the largest evacuations in Australian history.
Traffic was gridlocked as people fled and firefighters escorted convoys of evacuees as fires threatened to close roads.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews declared a disaster across much of the eastern part of the state, allowing the government to order evacuations in an area with as many as 140,000 permanent residents and tens of thousands more vacationers.
"If you can leave, you must leave," Mr Andrews said.
"There is still a window for people to leave," said New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian. "If you don't need to be in the area, you need to leave... That window will close."
Thousands of residents and tourists have been heeding that warning, fleeing a popular 300km length of coastline, with queues of cars stretching towards Sydney and Canberra.
In South Australia state, fire officials said that the weather conditions were a cause for concern because fires were still burning or smouldering.
"The ignition sources are already there," Country Fire Service chief officer Mark Jones said. "There are millions of sparks out there ready to go if they break containment lines."
The early and devastating start to Australia's summer wildfires has made this season the worst on record.
Number of homes destroyed in the wildfires. About 5 million ha of land has been burned and at least 19 people have been killed.
About 5 million ha of land has been burned, at least 19 people have been killed, and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed.
This week, at least 448 homes have been destroyed on the New South Wales southern coast and dozens were burned in Victoria.
Ten deaths have been confirmed in the two states this week, and the Victoria authorities said 28 people are missing. Fires are also burning in Western Australia, South Australia and Tasmania.
The navy evacuated hundreds from Mallacoota, a coastal town in Victoria cut off for days by wildfires that forced as many as 4,000 residents and tourists to seek shelter on beaches.
Landing craft ferried people to the HMAS Choules offshore. Evacuees waiting to board the ship described smoke and embers flying everywhere when the fires were at their worst.
"It's just scary waiting," Ms Dani Barmeister told Channel Nine.
Ms Natalie Morrissey said of the emotional wait while the fires threatened: "It's something that I want to forget."
Choules Commander Scott Houlihan said 963 people had signed up for evacuation by sea and more had been airlifted to safety.
In New South Wales, a state of emergency and a total fire ban were in place. State Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers urged people not to wait to leave, noting four people in the state died in their cars as they made late attempts to flee.
"We know people have got a little bit of fire fatigue. They've been dealing with this now for months," he said.
"But we need people to stay focused. Tomorrow is not the day to drop your guard. Take it seriously. If you're in those areas where we put those maps out, do not be there."
Mr Rogers added that anyone who chose not to leave must take responsibility for their own safety.
Smoke from the wildfires has choked air quality and turned daytime skies to near night-time darkness in the worst-hit areas.
Sydney University ecologist Chris Dickman told the Sydney Morning Herald that nearly 500 million birds, reptiles and mammals are likely to have died in New South Wales alone. Frogs, bats and insects are excluded from his estimate, making the toll on animals much greater.
The nation's agricultural sector also suffered untallied losses.
Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie said that in addition to their livestock dying, farmers were struggling to feed animals with their supply chains disrupted.
The smoke has also blown across the Tasman Sea into New Zealand, where skies are hazy and glaciers have turned a deep caramel brown.
The colour change may cause more melting since the glaciers will reflect less sunlight.
ASSOCIATED PRESS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE