Thousands swarmed to beaches on Australia’s east coast on Tuesday to escape fierce wildfires bearing down on several seaside towns, as the government readied naval vessels and military helicopters to aid firefighting and evacuations.
Government officials called for Australian military support and assistance from U.S. and Canadian fire crews as authorities confirmed two people had died overnight, taking to 11 the total deaths in wildfires since the beginning of October.
The huge bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres), with new blazes sparked into life almost daily by extremely hot and windy conditions in bushland left tinder dry after a three-year drought.
Fueled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are now burning across the southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria, threatening several towns and snapping their power, mobile and internet links.
“This is absolutely one of the worst fire seasons we’ve seen,” Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the NSW Rural Fire Service, told a briefing in Sydney.
“It’s going to be a very long, difficult dangerous night still ahead. It’s going to be another difficult day again tomorrow.”
Authorities said the main firefront was moving up the coast and warned those in its path to seek shelter close to the beach.
About 4,000 people in the town of Mallacoota in Victoria headed to the waterfront after the main road was cut off. Those who could not make it there scrambled for shelter in a gymnasium and other public buildings, as emergency sirens wailed.
Some of those trapped in the town posted images of blood-red, smoke-filled skies on social media. One beachfront photograph showed people lying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.
It looked “a lot like Armageddon,” said David Jeffrey, the owner of the Wave Oasis guesthouse, adding, “It’s terrifying.”
Fisherman Steve Casement said he had lost his house in Mallacoota to the fires. “We are stuck here now,” he told Reuters by telephone. “Everyone is pretty shocked at the moment, most of my mates are in the same position.
“Right now, I am on a trailer watching the town burn down, listening to gas bottles explode at some poor bugger’s home and seeing smoke all around me.”
Authorities said that by late afternoon the worst danger had passed.