Thousands of holidaymakers and locals were bedding down at beaches in fire-ravaged southeast Australia on New Year’s Eve after fleeing deadly blazes that ripped through popular tourist areas and cut off several towns.
In seaside communities along a 200-kilometre (135-mile) strip of coast, terrified crowds -- wrapped in blankets and wearing make-shift facemasks -- sought refuge from the inferno near the water.
Some with boats earlier took to the sea in near-darkness, hoping to find safety, as one of the worst days yet in Australia’s months-long bushfire crisis prompted a military deployment to help relief efforts.
Three people have died, five more are unaccounted for, and scores of properties were feared destroyed after a brutal 24 hours in which flames reached well-populated towns like Batemans Bay, normally bursting with visitors during Australia’s summer holidays.
“We’ve got literally hundreds, thousands of people up and down the coast, taking refuge on the beaches” and in surf clubs, said Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
“We’ll have instances of 500 people or more trying to sleep in and around our surf clubs.” Around 4,000 people were trapped on the foreshore in the town of Mallacoota, where towering columns of smoke turned the sky pitch black and nearby fires caused waves of “ember attacks”.
In some places Tuesday’s blazes were so intense, the smoke so thick and the dry lightning storms precipitated by the fires so severe that aerial reconnaissance and waterbombing had to be halted.
SYDNEY AFP, 31 Dec, 2019