Australia deployed military ships and aircraft on Wednesday to help communities ravaged by devastating wildfires that have left at least 17 people dead nationwide and sent thousands of residents and holidaymakers fleeing to the shoreline.
Navy ships and military aircraft were taking water, food and fuel to towns where supplies were depleted and roads had been cut off by the fires.
Authorities confirmed three bodies were found at Lake Conjola on the south coast of New South Wales on Wednesday, taking the death toll in the state to 15.
More than 175 homes have been destroyed in the region.
On Tuesday morning, 4,000 people in the coastal town of Mallacoota fled to the shore as winds pushed a fire towards their homes under a sky darkened by smoke and turned blood-red by flames.
Stranded residents and holidaymakers slept in their cars, and petrol stations and surf clubs were transformed into evacuation areas.
Dozens of homes were burned before winds changed direction late on Tuesday, sparing the rest of the town.
Victoria Emergency Commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters the Australian Defence Force was moving naval assets to Mallacoota on a supply mission which would last two weeks and helicopters would also fly in more firefighters since roads were inaccessible.
Conditions cooled on Wednesday, but the fire danger remained very high across the state, where four people are missing.
“We have three months of hot weather to come. We do have a dynamic and a dangerous fire situation across the state,” Mr Crisp said.
In the New South Wales town of Conjola Park, 89 properties were confirmed destroyed and cars were melted by Tuesday’s fires.
At 3am on 1 January 2020, there are 112 fires burning across NSW. Several large & dangerous fires continue burning on the South Coast where 2 fires remain at emergency warning. A further 6 fires are at Watch and Act. Over 2500 firefighters continue working on these fires. #nswrfs pic.twitter.com/5wgY6UnjOD
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) December 31, 2019
More than 100 fires were still burning in the state on Wednesday, though none were at an emergency level.
Seven people have died this week, including a volunteer firefighter, a man found in a burnt-out car, and a father and son who died in their house.
Firefighting crews took advantage of easing conditions on Wednesday to restore power to critical infrastructure and conduct some back burning, before conditions were expected to deteriorate on Saturday as high temperatures and strong winds return.
“There is every potential that the conditions on Saturday will be as bad or worse than we saw yesterday,” said New South Wales Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers.
The early and devastating start to Australia’s summer wildfires has led authorities to rate this season the worst on record and reignited debate about whether Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government has taken enough action on climate change.
Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal and liquefied natural gas, but Mr Morrison rejected calls last month to downsize Australia’s lucrative coal industry.
Mr Morrison won a surprise third term in May and among his government’s pledges was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 26% to 28% by 2030 – a modest figure compared with the centre-left opposition Labour Party’s pledge of 45%.
The leader of the minor Australian Greens party, Richard Di Natale, demanded a royal commission, the nation’s highest form of inquiry, on the wildfire crisis.
“If he (Mr Morrison) refuses to do so, we will be moving for a parliamentary commission of inquiry with royal commission-like powers as soon as parliament returns,” Mr Di Natale said.
About five million hectares (12.35 million acres) of land have burned nationwide over the past few months, with at least 17 people dead and more than 1,000 homes destroyed.
Some communities cancelled New Year fireworks celebrations, but Sydney’s popular display over its famous harbour controversially went ahead in front of more than a million revellers.
The city was granted an exemption to a total fireworks ban in place there and elsewhere to prevent new wildfires.
Smoke from the wildfires meant that, on Wednesday, Canberra, the nation’s capital, had air quality more than 21 times the hazardous rating to be reportedly the worst in the world.
The smoke has also wafted across the Tasman Sea and into New Zealand.