People trapped by advancing wildfires in Australia flee to beaches

Thousands in the southeast portion of the country have been forced to take shelter on beaches as fires spread

SYDNEY, Australia — Thousands of people trapped by advancing bushfires in south-east Australia were told by fire authorities on Tuesday to retreat to the beaches for safety as most roads have been cut.

In the coastal town of Mallacoota, 500 kilometres east of Melbourne, around 4,000 holidaymakers were on the beach Tuesday morning as embers fell on the town from the advancing fire, Victorian Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp said.

"Mallacoota is under attack, it is pitch black and very scary," Crisp said at a press conference on Tuesday.

"We have 4,000 people on the beach and nearby who are protected by our firefighters."

There had been significant property losses across the Gippsland region in the north-east of the state of Victoria where 200,000 hectares have burned in the past week, Crisp said, adding that "it is still a dynamic and dangerous situation."

The Victorian Country Fire Service has issued eight emergency declarations for the region under which people are told to evacuate with no guarantee fire services can reach them to supply help.

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said he had appealed to the federal government for military support, asking for helicopters to be sent and possibly naval ships to bring in supplies and evacuate people if needed.

"There are four people who are unaccounted for and we have fears for their safety," Andrews told reporters.

In neighbouring New South Wales, three people are missing in the path of the fires in the state, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said at a press conference midday Tuesday.

A firefighter was killed and two others were injured on Monday night when a fire tornado lifted a 12-tonne fire truck into the air and slammed it onto its roof.

The extreme conditions firefighters faced overnight near Albury in the south of the state were "truly horrific," Fitzsimmons told reporters Tuesday.

"It was a fire tornado or a collapsed pyro convective column that had formed above the main fire front. That resulted in cyclonic winds that moved across the fireground," Fitzsimmons explained.

He named the late firefighter as Samuel McPaul, 28. Two other firefighters in the truck were rushed to hospital to be treated for injuries and burns.

A command vehicle was also lifted into the air by the fire tornado and dumped on its roof, severely injuring the firefighter inside.

The fire near Albury, 550 kilometres south west of Sydney, is still out of control.

A heatwave on Tuesday was also worsening fire conditions on a 300-kilometre stretch of the NSW coast.

Several coastal towns have been encircled by bushfires, including the resort town of Batemans Bay, 277 kilometres south of Sydney, where four homes were reportedly destroyed overnight.

Fitzsimmons told press on Tuesday that three people were unaccounted for, and there was the "potential for three potential fatalities as a result of the fire in the south coast."

People on the New South Wales south coast were also being advised to shelter on the beach for safety.

Fitzsimmons warned that weather forecasters had said conditions for the rest of Tuesday were going to be even worse than predicted.

Major roads heading south from Sydney are closed with police also closing roads to the Snowy Mountains as fresh fires break out.

Fires have raged across south-eastern Australia since October, scorching more than 3.4 million hectares of bushland and leaving a total of ten people dead and nearly 1,000 homes lost. There is no end in sight.

©2019 Deutsche Presse-Agentur GmbH (Hamburg, Germany)

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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