SYDNEY (AFP) - Thousands of tourists have been given less than 48 hours to evacuate fire-ravaged coastal communities as Australia braces itself for a weekend heatwave expected to fan deadly bushfires. Catastrophic blazes ripped through the country's south-east on New Year's Eve, killing at least eight people and stranding holidaymakers.
The New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service on Thursday (Jan 2) declared a "tourist leave zone" stretching about 200km from the popular holiday spot of Batemans Bay along the picturesque coast to neighbouring Victoria state, where people are also being urged to flee.
Vehicles formed long lines at petrol stations and supermarkets, and traffic was gridlocked as highways reopened.
At least 18 people are now known to have died in one of Australia's most devastating bushfire seasons yet, and there are growing fears the toll could rise dramatically, with officials in Victoria saying 17 people were missing in the state.
Visitors are being warned to leave affected areas before Saturday, when another heatwave is expected to sweep across the country, with gusting winds and temperatures above 40 deg C.
That weather will create conditions officials say will be as bad as - if not worse than - Dec 31, the deadliest day in a months-long bushfire crisis.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a seven-day state of emergency starting at 9am on Friday, Australian Broadcasting Corp reported.
The Premier says the emergency has been declared to allow for forced evacuations and road closures ahead of Saturday's forecast "horrible" fire conditions.
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said conditions on Saturday were likely to be severe.
"The conditions on Saturday are likely to be worse than New Year's Eve and a lot of those areas in the south-east quadrant of the state have the potential to be impacted - and impacted very heavily," ABC quoted him as saying.
Many tourists and residents spent two nights isolated with no electricity or telecommunications, before authorities on Thursday declared some roads safe to use - only for fires to the north of Batemans Bay to block the main highway again later on Thursday.
NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance called it the "largest evacuation of people out of the region ever", with a queue of cars stretching along the highway towards Sydney as thousands flee the area. One driver told AFP it had taken her three hours to travel just 50km.
NSW Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said firefighters would be unable to extinguish or even control the raging blazes.
"The message is we've got so much fire in that area, we have no capacity to contain these fires," he told ABC. "We just need to make sure that people are not in front of them."
Mr John Steele, 73, who lives outside the south coast town of Merimbula, told Agence France-Presse some people were "panicking" amid the warnings to evacuate.
"There's so much misinformation on Facebook and on the Web," he said. Mr Steele said the region had been "chaotic" in recent days as fresh produce and fuel supplies ran low, but he and his wife were staying put for now.
"We're happy to see every man and his dog leave town," he said. "We are cautious, we have our bags packed."
Authorities still have not been able to reach some rural communities, such as the town of Genoa in Victoria.
The number of homes confirmed destroyed in recent days has topped 400, with that figure expected to rise as firefighters reach communities still isolated by flames.
Navy ship HMAS Choules arrived early Thursday in Mallacoota - where people huddled on the foreshore for hours on New Year's Eve as a fire bore down on the remote town - to begin evacuating people, a defence force spokesman said. Local media said the ship could carry about 1,000 people at a time. The vessel also delivered water, food and medical supplies.
Emergency Management Victoria deputy commissioner Chris Stephenson said some vulnerable people had already been rescued and a further 500 people would be extracted at the beginning of a lengthy operation.
"Today, it's starting to move potentially the tourists in Mallacoota, and residents who may not want to be there," he said. "With the number of people in Mallacoota, this is going to take days, if not weeks, to be able to achieve."
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation: "We think around 3,000 tourists and 1,000 locals are there. Not all of those will want to leave, not all can get on the vessel at one time,"
Military aircraft have also been working with emergency crews to drop relief supplies into isolated areas and assess the fire damage.
This season's blazes have destroyed more than 1,300 homes and scorched over 5.5 million hectares across the country - an area far greater than Denmark or the Netherlands.
The unprecedented crisis has sparked street protests calling on the government to immediately act on climate change, which scientists say is creating a longer and more intense bushfire season.
Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under increasing pressure for his actions, which included holidaying in Hawaii as the disaster unfolded and reiterating his support for Australia's lucrative - but heavily polluting - coal mining industry.
In his first official press conference since the latest blazes flared, Mr Morrison said Thursday "every absolute effort" was being made to assist affected communities. "The best way to respond is the way that Australians have always responded to these events, and that is to put our confidence in those who are fighting these fires," he said, while defending Australia's climate change policies as "sensible".
In the nation's capital Canberra, about two hours drive inland from Batemans Bay, smoke from the wildfires caused the air quality to be the world's worst and was blowing into New Zealand thousands of kilometres away to the east. Soot from the fires has turned New Zealand's normally white glaciers a shade of caramel, according to social media posts on Thursday.