Australia orders evacuation of fire-ravaged towns before heatwave

Thousands of holidaymakers and locals were forced to flee to beaches in fire-ravaged southeast Australia on December 31, as blazes ripped through popular tourist areas leaving no escape by land. (AFP).
Thousands of holidaymakers and locals were forced to flee to beaches in fire-ravaged southeast Australia on December 31, as blazes ripped through popular tourist areas leaving no escape by land. (AFP).

Australia authorised the forced evacuation of residents on Thursday amid a mass exodus of tourists from fire-ravaged coastal communities, as the country braces for a weekend heatwave expected to fan deadly bushfires.

Catastrophic blazes ripped through the country's south-east on New Year's Eve, killing at least eight people and stranding holidaymakers.

New South Wales (NSW) Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a seven-day state of emergency that allows for forced evacuations beginning on Friday, for the third time in Australia's most populated region this fire season.

"We don't take these decisions lightly but we also want to make sure we're taking every single precaution to be prepared for what could be a horrible day on Saturday," she said.

At least 18 people are now known to have died in one of Australia's most devastating bushfire seasons yet, and there are growing fears the toll could rise dramatically, with officials in Victoria saying 17 people were missing in the state.

Visitors are being warned to leave affected areas before Saturday, when another heatwave is expected to sweep across the country, with gusting winds and temperatures above 40°C.

READ | Thousands trapped on Australia beaches encircled by fire

That weather will create conditions officials say will be as bad as - if not worse than - Tuesday, the deadliest day in a months-long bushfire crisis.

The number of homes confirmed destroyed in recent days has topped 400, with that figure expected to rise as firefighters reach communities still isolated by flames.

Two Navy ships arrived in Mallacoota - where people huddled on the foreshore for hours on New Year's Eve as a fire bore down on the remote town - to begin evacuating up to 4 000 people in an operation officials say could take weeks.

Victoria joint bushfire task force commander Doug Laidlaw said the first evacuees would be moved onto the vessels on Friday morning, with children, the sick and elderly taking priority.

"If we need to reset and (return) again, weather permitting, that is exactly what will happen," he said.

Military aircraft have also been working with emergency crews to drop relief supplies into isolated areas and continue assessing the extensive fire damage.

This season's blazes have destroyed more than 1 300 homes and scorched over 5.5m hectares across the country - an area far greater than Denmark or the Netherlands.

Suburbs of cities like Sydney and Melbourne, home to several million people, have also been hit by bushfires.

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