Australia races to reach thousands of fire trapped people


Fire-ravaged Australia has launched a major operation to reach thousands of people stranded in seaside towns after deadly bushfires ripped through popular tourist areas on New Year's Eve.

Navy ships and military aircraft were deployed alongside emergency crews Wednesday to provide humanitarian relief and assess the damage from one of the worst days yet in Australia's months-long bushfire crisis.

Four people died in just 48 hours and there are grave fears for five others still missing after the country's southeast was devastated by out-of-control blazes, which destroyed dozens of homes and left some small towns in ruins.

Information was trickling out of coastal communities where thousands of holidaymakers and locals were thought to have seen in the New Year taking refuge from flames at surf clubs, as power outages and damage to telecommunications towers brought down phone lines and the internet.

New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said emergency services faced a "real challenge" trying to help injured people -- some reportedly suffering burns -- in isolated areas.

"We haven't been able to get access via roads or via aircraft. It's been... too dangerous and we simply can't access, nor can the people in these areas get out," he said.

Fires are still raging across the country, with homes and lives remaining under threat in Victoria state, and it could take days for the military to reach people in some remote areas.

 'Ember attacks' 
There was cheers and relief in the town of Mallacoota -- where towering columns of smoke turned the sky pitch black and nearby fires caused waves of "ember attacks" -- after around 4,000 people who had huddled on the foreshore ringed by fire trucks survived unharmed.

"I understand there was a standing ovation at the end of that for the firefighters," Victoria Emergency Management commissioner Andrew Crisp told public broadcaster ABC.


Authorities are preparing for the possibility that Mallacoota could be cut off for weeks: aircraft have begun dropping supplies into the town while a barge with two weeks' worth of supplies is due to arrive later Wednesday.

Paramedics are reportedly assessing the injured and moving those requiring further treatment to a 25-bed floating medical centre off the coast.

Many have returned to find their homes burned to the ground, with the task of rebuilding shattered communities expected to take years.

Gary Hinton escaped flames roaring through Cobargo early Tuesday and returned to the stricken town to find his father's house largely intact, but many other buildings reduced to rubble.

"It wasn't good. It's turned out pretty devastating for everyone," he told AFP.

'Long and dangerous fight'
Cooler temperatures and easing winds provided a window of opportunity for relief efforts Wednesday, but there were concerns over new fires sparked by lightning late Tuesday in alpine regions.

"There's a lot of people holidaying, again, up in those areas," Crisp said. "We'll be prioritising those and hitting them as hard as we can. We don't need any new fires."

Firefighters were racing to take advantage of the milder weather in the country's south-east to contain dozens of blazes, as authorities warned the fire danger would spike on Saturday as temperatures soar again.

"At the very least, weather conditions will be at least as bad as what they were yesterday," NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian said.

"That makes this a long and dangerous and complex fight, a long and dangerous process to support everyone who's been impacted by it," Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews added.


This season's blazes have killed at least 14 people, destroyed more than 1,000 homes and scorched about 5.5 million hectares (13.5 million acres) -- an area bigger than Denmark or the Netherlands.

For weeks major Australian cities have been choked by toxic bushfire smoke, and on Wednesday air quality reached hazardous levels in Canberra as visibility in the capital plummeted.

Satellite images show smoke from the latest fires has blown across the Tasman Sea to reach New Zealand.


The unprecedented crisis has sparked street protests calling on the government to immediately act on climate change, which scientists say is creating a longer and more intense bushfire season.

Conservative prime minister Scott Morrison has come under increasing pressure for his response, which has included holidaying in Hawaii as the disaster unfolded and reiterating his steadfast support for Australia's lucrative -- but heavily polluting -- coal mining industry.

Officials in Sydney have also been criticised for ignoring calls to cancel the harbour city's famed New Year's Eve fireworks display.