Australian navy begins mass evacuations as new fire threat looms

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 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.