Australia bushfires: Navy ships and choppers to deliver supplies to stranded residents

Navy ships and helicopters have been deployed to deliver crucial supplies to people trapped by bushfires in Australia.

Two vessels will reach the east coast of Victoria on Thursday and are also ready to evacuate people still trapped on beaches after being forced from their homes.

Cooler conditions on the first day of 2020 have given the east coast a chance to count the cost of the fires, but many areas remain cut off.

At least 18 people have died since the fire season began, after three more bodies were found on Wednesday at Lake Conjola in New South Wales.

In Mallacoota, a small town near the border of Victoria and New South Wales, residents had a late change in wind direction to thank for the fires not reaching them.

Mark Tregellas, one of around 4,000 people who had to sleep on a beach, said: "The fire just continued to grow. The black started to descend and I couldn't see the hand in front of my face."

He added: "Then it started to glow red and we knew the fire was coming.

"Ash started to fall from the air and then the embers started to come down. At that point, people started to bring their kids and families into the water.

"Thankfully, the wind changed and the fire moved away."

In Ulladulla, a small coastal town south of Sydney, residents and tourists have been scrambling to get supplies.

There were long lines outside any shops that remained open on New Year's Day.

The navy ships being deployed will be stationed off the coast of Mallacoota, from where water, food, fuel and other supplies will be transported to other nearby towns.

Extra firefighters are also being flown in by helicopter because roads are inaccessible.

Choppers have already been out in force on New Year's Day, with one rescuing at least one person from Mallacoota and another saving three people from the town of Moruya in New South Wales.

The supply mission is expected to last two weeks, and gas company Esso has also sent a ship and two helicopters.

Most of the more than 1,000 homes that have been destroyed since the fires started were in New South Wales, which is the most populous state in Australia.

According to local reports, churches and schools are also among the buildings destroyed, with five million hectares having been devastated in total.

More than 2,500 firefighters have been working through New Year's Day in an effort to beat the flames, the smoke from which has drifted to Sydney and Canberra and sparked health warnings.

Smoke has also reached New Zealand, where it turned the daytime sky orange across the South Island.

Australian PM Scott Morrison has been criticised for his response to the fires, with some questioning whether he is taking climate change seriously enough.

He has also been accused of a lack of empathy after saying the fires were happening "against the backdrop" of an ongoing cricket match between Australia and New Zealand.

He said people would be "inspired by the great feats of our cricketers" as they gather "around television sets all around the country" to watch the Test, which has been threatened by smoke from the fires.

Officials have warned that the worst is far from over, with harsher weather conditions to return by the weekend.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney: "Weather conditions on Saturday will be as bad as they were."

Victoria emergency commissioner Andrew Crisp added: "We have three months of hot weather to come. We do have a dynamic and a dangerous fire situation across the state."