The death toll may exceed eight people as the full extent of the fire crisis gripping south-eastern Australia emerges, with towns ravaged, more than 200 homes lost in the past few days and a warning that the weekend may bring worse conditions.
The Prime Minister is under pressure from Labor to convene an emergency meeting of state and territory leaders to devise a national strategy on disaster response as more than 150 fires continued to burn in NSW and Victoria.
Helicopters and navy ships are being sent to Mallacoota, in the East Gippsland region of Victoria, where 4000 holidaymakers and local residents had been forced to seek shelter. Victorian authorities are trying to determine how to evacuate the area.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews confirmed that planning for evacuation by sea had begun, with amphibious Navy vessels due to be in place on Thursday and Friday.
Navy ships and military aircraft have already helped deliver water, food and fuel to isolated towns where supplies are being quickly exhausted, and more ADF assets will join a supply mission expected to last up to two weeks.
NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said he expected the number of lives lost to rise, and that communications delays were holding up the process of identifying and accounting for people.
The Insurance Council of Australia took aim at the NSW state government, telling The Australian Financial Review that the government’s “emergency services levy” deterred residents and businesses from insuring their properties.
Total insured losses from this season’s bushfires are approaching $300 million.
Death toll rises
Three more people in NSW were confirmed dead yesterday taking the total over Tuesday and Wednesday to seven, with a number of people still missing.
Police found unidentified bodies in burnt-out vehicles in Yatte Yattah, west of Lake Conjola, and at the Sussex Inlet. Ambulance officers located the third body.
Up to seven emergency warnings were issued for the bushfires in East Gippsland on the first day of 2020. A woman reported the death of her uncle at his home, which, if verified, would bring the death toll since Monday to eight.
NSW emergency services are searching for missing persons in Lake Conjola and in the hills to the west of Narooma. At least three others were missing in East Gippsland.
The RFS confirmed that 176 homes had burned down on the NSW south coast this week, 89 of them located in Conjola Park, and that up to 80 per cent of homes and businesses in some communities had been destroyed.
The home of Mark Peters and Kim Harper, pictured by local media on Wednesday, was the only house still standing on their street in Lake Conjola. The family car and boat sat in the front yard, destroyed. The car’s tyres were melted and windows smashed by the fire’s heat.
We are running out of adjectives for what our people are seeing.
— Paul Baxter, NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner
Conditions in eastern Victoria were relatively mild on Wednesday, as temperatures fell to 28 degrees and wind gusts down to 15-20 km per hour. However, fire danger was rated “high” as blazes started by lightning, partially generated by the bushfires themselves, continued to burn out of control.
Victorian state emergency commissioner Andrew Crisp said “what we used to talk about as three fires have become one” in East Gippsland, as the total area burned across the state this bushfire season exceeded 500,000 hectares.
“What we talk about, when you start to get ratings into the extreme area, fires are fast-moving, uncontrollable, unpredictable,” he said. “You won’t put them out. That’s a fact,
“It was nature which started the fires and it will be nature that stops these fires.”
Mr Crisp added that the state had “three months of hot weather to come”, and that conditions were expected to deteriorate again on Friday and Saturday.
Greens leader Richard Di Natale called on the Prime Minister to establish a royal commission into bushfires, their management, and connection to climate change.
“This is a moment of truth for Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who is failing in his basic duty to keep our citizens safe from harm,” Mr Di Natale said.
Emergency services and the defence force delivered supplies to Mallacoota town on barges and helicopters, as the main road leading to the town off the Princes Highway remained closed. Rolling blackouts and a “boil water notice”, which directs residents not to drink from the tap, remained in place on Tuesday.
Arterial roads across the south coast, including the Princes Highway between South Nowra and Milton, the Pacific Highway between Blue Haven and Lake Haven, and the Kings Highway leading to Canberra, remain shut.
The weather bureau is forecasting a severe heatwave in western NSW, Canberra, and parts of East Gippsland over three days starting on Friday.
Strong southerly winds across NSW on Saturday are expected to recreate the dangerous conditions seen across the nation’s south-east on New Year’s Eve.
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said state emergency services were focused on backburning operations ahead of the weekend, and assessing the extent of the damage.
“It’s very difficult to console people when they’ve lost everything,” she said.
Property damage mounts
Meanwhile, the property damage from the fires continued to mount.
According to the NSW RFS’ latest impact assessment, the number of homes destroyed in the bushfire season has increased to 916 from the 829 reported last week. Additionally, 73 non-residential facilities such as car yards and 2107 outbuildings have also been destroyed.
These figures were likely to significantly increase. NSW Education Minister Sarah Mitchell confirmed on Wednesday that two schools on the south coast – in Cobargo and Quaama – had been destroyed by fires. In Victoria, Clifton Creek Primary School was also burnt to the ground.
The RFS estimated that 8159 homes, 681 facilities and 7338 outbuildings had been saved over the same period.
NSW emergency services were battling over 120 fires, seven of them at alert level, on Wednesday afternoon. The 500,000-hectare blaze at Gospers Mountain was “being controlled” but the nearby Green Wattle Creek fire, now approaching 250,000 hectares in size, remained out of control.
South Australia was battling 52 incidents, while Western Australia had six fires burning at alert level on Wednesday afternoon, including a 33,000-hectare blaze at Stirling Range National Park in the state’s south.
Another six fires burned at watch-and-act level in Tasmania, around Pelham, 50 kilometres north-west of Hobart, and Fingal in the state’s north-east.
NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Paul Baxter said news of firefighters placed in danger on the frontlines made for a nervous wait at headquarters.
“The feeling that goes through this building when we hear circumstances like that is sobering and the place goes very, very quiet,” Mr Baxter said. “We are running out of adjectives for what our people are seeing.”
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