Thousands of people were trapped on a beach in Australia on Tuesday in what has been one of the worst days so far in the country's fire crisis, with two people killed and five missing.
Wildfires encircled the seaside town of Mallacoota, Victoria, leaving some 4,000 people stranded on the beach or taking to the sea in small boats.
The Australian Defence Force said it was sending air and sea vehicles to Victoria to help with evacuations.
“Mallacoota is under attack, it is pitch black and very scary,” Andrew Crisp, Victoria's emergency management commissioner, told local media. “We have 4,000 people on the beach and nearby who are protected by our firefighters.”
Mark Tregellas, a Mallacoota father of three, was among the 4,000 locals and tourists on the foreshore. He told The Age “the smoke comes over and it basically turns the day to night”.
“You are talking pitch blackness. There are no stars. Visibility was reduced to less than 50 metres ... Then you suddenly start to see completely burnt leaves falling out of the sky around you. Then the wind increases. The ash starts to come through like sleet. Then a glow started on the west horizon,” he said.
Robert Salway, 63, and his son Patrick, 29, were found dead by a family member in a house in the wildfire-ravaged town of Cobargo, New South Wales on Tuesday morning, the latest victims of the fire crisis that has killed 12 people.
A 72-year-old man was reported missing from a community 50km away and is yet to be found.
"They were obviously trying to do their best with the fire as it came through in the early hours of the morning," said Gary Worboys, New South Wales police deputy commissioner. "The other person that we are trying to get to, we think that person was trying to defend their property in the early hours of the morning."
On Monday, volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul, 28, died while fighting a blaze just north of the Victorian border after the fire truck he was in was rolled over by what was described as a “fire tornado”.
The death has devastated his family and his community. Mr McPaul’s wife Megan is pregnant with their first child.
His cousin, Brett McPaul, said he was “absolutely heartbroken”.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison issued a statement saying he could not “imagine the terrible sense of loss and grief that Sam's family are now feeling”.
“I have spoken to Megan to extend my deepest sympathies and our love and support at this terrible time and express that same sentiment on behalf of the entire country ... It is an unimaginable loss and one felt by the entire country,” he said.
Two other firefighters suffered burns in the incident.
On Tuesday there were 120 fires burning in New South Wales, 68 of them uncontained and eight of them considered Emergency level by authorities.
In Victoria, south of the state border, four people are missing and fire fighters face scores of fires, including eight at Emergency level – one of which has cut Mallacoota off.
Both New South Wales and Victoria experienced ominous glowing red skies and, in some areas, total darkness at mid-morning.
Around 100,000 people were evacuated from the outer suburbs of Victoria’s capital, Melbourne.
Towns across East Gippsland remain isolated even where the fire danger has passed, with roads, electricity and other services out.
New South Wales Police said the fires had knocked out all power from South Nowra to Moruya and potentially beyond. “Power is unlikely to be restored for at least 24 hours. The power outage also affects communication lines and therefore some landlines are not operating which means internet is also affected. Additionally, communication towers have been affected impacting mobile services,” they said.
Locals and tourists holding tight on the #Mallacoota wharf as the bushfire passes through the popular seaside summer holiday spot #AustraliaBurns (�� from ‘travelling_aus_family’ on Instagram). pic.twitter.com/NfQxlwObxv— Siobhan Heanue (@siobhanheanue) December 31, 2019
Shane Fitzsimmons, NSW rural fire service commissioner, said strong winds had driven "aggressive fire behaviour" along the state's south-east coast. “We need to brace ourselves for the loss of a considerable number of properties and homes… It is going to be a long difficult, dangerous night ahead. It is going to be a dangerous day ahead tomorrow,” he said.
There have been more major property losses across NSW and Victoria in the past two days but the full extent of the disaster won’t be known until assessors can safely access the burnt out areas.
In South Australia, where lightning strikes and extremely hot and dry conditions saw 120 fires burning on Monday, the crisis continued on Tuesday with dozens of homes destroyed, bringing the tally in the past week to well over 100.
At least 600 firefighters and more than 150 trucks are in the field across the state.
Nationally the fires have burnt through more than four million hectares and destroyed over 1,000 homes.