Australian navy begins mass evacuations as new fire threat looms

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BATEMANS BAY, Australia/SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Australian navy on Friday began evacuating around 1,000 people stranded on the east coast of the fire-ravaged country as a searing weather front was set to whip up more blazes across the states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW).

At the peak of the summer holiday period, tens of thousands of holidaymakers have been urged to leave national parks and tourist areas on the NSW south coast and eastern areas of Victoria before a return of temperatures above 40C (104 F) and hot winds on Saturday.

Victoria declared a state of disaster for the first time, giving authorities broad powers to compel people to leave their properties and take control of services, similar to the state of emergency that has been declared in NSW.

Andrew Crisp, emergency management commissioner for Victoria, urged people in at-risk areas to leave their homes immediately and not count on luck to avoid disaster.

“This is your opportunity to get out. It is not just the fires we know. It is the new fires that might start today,” he told ABC News.

Another death from the fires in NSW was confirmed on Friday, taking the toll in the state this week to eight. Two people have died in Victoria’s fires, and 28 others are unaccounted for.

The navy’s HMAS Choules and Sycamore started the evacuations of around 1,000 of the 4,000 people stranded on a beach in the isolated town of Malla­coota in far-east Victoria, federal member of parliament Darren Chester tweeted on Friday morning.

With all roads blocked, sea transport and some airlifts are the only way out of the stricken town.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison had called for calm on Thursday, before visiting the fire-devastated NSW town of Cobargo where he was not entirely welcome.

Video showed Morrison confronted by a group of angry locals, one of whom shouted he should be “ashamed of himself” and said he had “left the country to burn”.

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance, who represents the local area and is from the prime minister’s Liberal party, said he had not heard from Morrison and did not know he was visiting the area.

“To be honest the locals probably gave him the welcome he probably deserved,” he told Channel 7.

On Friday, Morrison said he understood people were angry, and would not be distracted if they directed their anger at him.

“People have suffered great loss. People are hurting. People are raw. That’s what happens in natural disasters,” he said.

Morrison’s conservative government has long drawn criticism for not doing enough to address climate change as a cause of Australia’s savage drought and fires.

Bushfires so far this season have scorched more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of bushland and destroyed over 1,000 homes, including 449 homes destroyed on the south coast this week.

— The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) has rated six of South Australia’s 15 weather districts at “extreme” fire danger rating on Friday; three are rated “severe”, five at “very high” and one at “high”.

— For Saturday, the BOM has “extreme” fire danger ratings for four of 17 districts in NSW. Six areas are rated “severe”, 10 are “very high” and one is “high”. In Victoria, one district has a forecast “extreme” rating, three are rated “severe”, three at “very high” and two at “high”.

A supplied image obtained January 3, 2020 shows HMAS Choules’ Fast Recovery Craft making its way to Mallacoota, Victoria, Australia, January 2, 2020. AAP Image/Supplied by the Department of Defence/via REUTERS

— The NSW RFS tweeted a map of predictions of the spread of fires on Saturday here

— Victoria’s emergency coordination center published its map of fire predictions here

— Anthony Albanese, head of the opposition Labor Party, called for a national response to a national emergency. “We haven’t, in my lifetime, had people on beaches waiting to be evacuated in life jackets…like it’s a peacetime version of something that we have seen during wartime. This is not business as usual,” he said in a media conference.

— Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews says the state of disaster was an extraordinary step for extraordinary circumstances. “If you can leave you must leave. Not just for your safety but for the safety of those who may be called to your aid,” he told ABC news.

— Ten people have been killed by wildfires in the eastern states of NSW and Victoria since Monday, and 28 are still missing in Victoria.

— NSW rural fire service says there are 127 fires burning in the state and warned of a fire front stretching 60 to 70 km (37-44 miles) on Saturday.

— Police and emergency services again urged tourists on the state’s South Coast and in the Snowy Mountains to leave the area ahead of dangerous fire conditions. The deadline to leave Kosciuszko National Park was 10 a.m. Friday (2300 GMT Thursday).

— Thousands of people had already been evacuated from the region of East Gippsland in Victoria, one of the largest in the country since the northern city of Darwin evacuated over 35,000 people in the aftermath of cyclone Tracy in 1974.

— A contingent of 39 firefighters from North America landed in Melbourne this week, bringing to almost 100 the number of U.S. and Canadian experts who have flown in to help deal with the crisis.

Slideshow (8 Images)

— New Zealand’s government said it would send another 22 firefighters next week. Since October, NZ has deployed 157 firefighters to Australia.

— Morrison, forced to defend his government’s limited action on climate change, blamed a three-year drought and lack of hazard reduction for the unprecedented extent and duration of this year’s bushfires.

— Morrison said his inclination was to not proceed with a visit to India from Jan. 13 because of the fires. He is scheduled to visit Japan after India.

— United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres expressed sympathy for those who have suffered in Australia, U.N. spokesman Farhan Haq said on Thursday, adding that Guterres has warned that when it comes to tackling global warming, “right now the pace we’re on, we’re not winning that race.”

Reporting by Jill Gralow and Wayne Cole; Editing by Peter Cooney & Shri Navaratnam

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