Wildfires burning across Australia’s two most populous states have trapped residents of a seaside town in apocalyptic conditions, destroyed many properties and caused at least two fatalities on Tuesday.
In the southeastern town of Mallacoota, about 4,000 residents fled towards the waterside as winds pushed an emergency-level wildfire towards their homes. The town was shrouded in darkness from the smoke before turning an unnerving shade of bright red.
Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said there were plans to evacuate the trapped people by sea. There were grave fears for four people missing.
“We can’t confirm their whereabouts,” Andrews told reporters on Tuesday.
He has requested the assistance of 70 firefighters from the United States and Canada.
Victoria Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp confirmed “significant” property losses across the region.
Fire conditions worsened in Victoria and New South Wales states after oppressive heat on Monday mixed with strong winds and lightning strikes.
New South Wales Police confirmed on Tuesday that two men, believed to be father and son, died in a house in the wildfire-ravaged southeast town of Cobargo, while there are fears for another man missing.
“They were obviously trying to do their best with the fire as it came through in the early hours of the morning,” New South Wales Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys said. “The other person that we are trying to get to, we think that person was trying to defend their property in the early hours of the morning.”
Australia is burning.
The city of Mallacoota is completely surrounded by flame and 4,000 people have been forced to flee and seek shelter on the beach.
We need to act on climate change. This cannot be our new normal.
— Joshua Potash (@JoshuaPotash) December 31, 2019
The two confirmed deaths raise the toll to at least 12 in Australia’s wildfires, which also have razed more than 1,000 homes in the past few months.
A firefighter died on Monday when extreme winds flipped his truck. Samuel McPaul, 28, was the third volunteer firefighter in New South Wales to have died in the past two weeks. He was an expectant father.
The state’s Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said a “significant” number of properties had been destroyed.
Neil Bibby, former chief executive of Victoria’s country fire authority, told Al Jazeera that the fires are “unprecedented”.
“Just to put it in perspective, the New South Wales fires are as big as the UK,” he said, speaking from Sydney. “From the top of New South Wales right down to the border, then we go into Victoria and the fires there would be as big as Scotland.”
“From the top of Australia down through all of the states on the eastern coast of Tasmania, there are fires and they are getting worse.”
Bibby described the fires as a symptom of climate change.
“I think that when all of the smoke clears – and that’s going to be many, many months – we need to sit down and think about how we can confront fires like this for the next three decades because they are not going to improve,” he said.
Meanwhile, while some communities cancelled New Year’s fireworks celebrations, Sydney’s popular display over its iconic harborfront will go ahead. The city was granted an exemption to a total fireworks ban that is in place there and elsewhere to prevent new wildfires.
The popular celebrations are expected to attract around a million spectators and generate 130 million Australian dollars ($91m) for the state’s economy.
Dozens slept overnight at the gates to the free zones around the harbour and hundreds arrived before dawn on Tuesday to grab the best spots to see the Sydney sky lit up with 100,000 fireworks.
More than 280,000 people signed an online petition to cancel the display and give the money spent on it to those affected by the massive bushfires not far from the city.
Lord Mayor of Sydney Clover Moore said in a statement on Tuesday that Sydney New Year’s Eve is a symbol of hope and happiness for Australians and those watching around the world.
Later on Tuesday, Moore spoke at a press conference where she hit back at critics of the city’s fireworks display, telling reporters that the real issue the country should be worried about is climate change.