Thousands of Australians flee to beaches as wildfires rage

Thousands of Australians took refuge on beaches from raging wildfires that turned the sky bright red and full of smoke on New Year's Eve.
Image: Firefighters battle fires near the town of Nowra, Australia, on Dec. 31, 2019.
Firefighters battle fires near Nowra, Australia, on Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. Australia has been in the midst of a devastating fire season with months of summer still to come.Saeed Khan / AFP - Getty Images

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By Daniella Silva

Thousands of Australians fled their homes on New Year's Eve, taking refuge on beaches from raging wildfires that turned the sky bright red, destroyed houses and businesses and caused deaths in the country's most populous states.

The devastating fires, fed by intense heat and winds, rampaged across Australia's southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria heading into the new year, turning coastal towns into dangerous traps and forcing residents to the oceanside.

As of 3 a.m. local time Wednesday, 112 fires were burning across New South Wales and several large and dangerous fires continued to burn on the southern coast, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. More than 2,500 firefighters were combating the fires, it said.

Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews requested assistance from 70 firefighters from the United States and Canada, while Australia's military sent air and sea reinforcements, The Associated Press reported.

Officials said that all telecommunications, including cellphone coverage, would be lost overnight on the south coast of New South Wales between Nowra and Moruya and that hospitals would be among the affected facilities, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

The remains of burned buildings on the main street of Cobargo, Australia, on Tuesday.Sean Davey / AFP - Getty Images
Children wear masks to protect them from smoke as they play at an evacuation site in Bega, New South Wales, Australia, on Tuesday.Sean Davey / AFP - Getty Images

The massive blazes have already destroyed more than 10 million acres of bush and 1,000 homes after the devastating fire season began in September. Record heat, windy conditions and ongoing drought have exacerbated the blazes this annual fire season — a combination that environmentalists say has been aggravated by climate change.

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Australia recorded its hottest day on record in mid-December, beating the mark that was set just the day before. This comes after Australia's Bureau of Meteorology declared spring 2019 to be the driest on record.

Shane Fitzsimmons, commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, told The Sydney Morning Herald that it was "absolutely" the worst bushfire season on record.

"What we really need is meaningful rain, and we haven't got anything in the forecast at the moment that says we're going to get drought-breaking or fire quenching rainfall," he said.

In Mallacoota, in the state of Victoria, about 4,000 people swarmed to the beach to escape the fires, according to authorities. An image released to AFP/Getty Images showed people taking shelter offshore on a boat near Mallacoota, covering their mouths against an orange sky.

"The community right now is under threat, but they will, we will hold our line, and they will be saved and protected," Steve Warrington, chief officer of the Victorian Country Fire Authority, said Tuesday.

People take shelter from bush fires in a boat just offshore of Mallacoota, New South Wales, Australia, on Tuesday.Courtesy of Ida Dempsey / AFP - Getty Images

Andrews said Tuesday that four people remained unaccounted for.

Police in New South Wales said in a statement Wednesday that a third man had died in the fires in the state’s South Coast. His body was found in a burned car Wednesday morning on a road a little less than 4 miles west of Lake Conjola.

Tuesday, police in that state said two men, believed to be a father and his son, died in a house in the wildfire-ravaged southeast town of Cobargo.

"They were obviously trying to do their best with the fire as it came through in the early hours of the morning," New South Wales Deputy Police Commissioner Gary Worboys said, according to the AP.

A 72-year-old man remains unaccounted for at Belowra, which is around 31 miles west of Cobargo, police said Wednesday.

Smoke and flames rise from burning trees near the town of Nowra in New South Wales on Dec. 31.Saeed Khan / AFP - Getty Images
A firefighter battles a bush fire near the town of Sussex Inlet on Dec. 31.Sam Mooy / Getty Images

Dramatic video captured the moment a fire crew's truck was overrun by a bushfire south of Nowra, a town south of Sydney. The truck is seen making its way through the raging fires as smoke and embers fill the air. Massive flames are then seen surrounding the truck from all sides. Fire and Rescue New South Wales, which released the video, said the crew was forced to shelter in their truck as the fire front passed through. The fire service confirmed in a follow up post on Twitter that the crew survived the incident.

On Monday, a volunteer firefighter died when his truck overturned in a rare phenomenon known as a fire tornado, authorities said.

Cyclonic winds lifted the truck — which weighs 10 to 13 tons — and "flipped it onto its roof, trapping the people inside," and killing firefighter Samuel McPaul, 28, Fitzsimmons said. Three other people were injured.

McPaul is survived by his wife, who is pregnant with their first child. He was due to become a father in May, officials said.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed condolences, calling McPaul's death "absolutely heartbreaking."

Fires approached a home in the outskirts of Bargo, Australia, near Sydney, on Dec. 21. David Gray / Getty Images file
Gary Hinton stands in the rubble after fires devastated the town of Cobargo, Australia, on Tuesday.Sean Davey / AFP - Getty Images

"The fires in New South Wales and Victoria are continuing to rage, and we expect further difficult news out of both of those states," he said.

"I want to thank all of those out there fighting those fires, all of those out there supporting them in these difficult times," he added. "The conditions remain tough, and for the rest of us it's a matter of just simply listening to the instructions, staying safe and being patient and doing what we need to do to put ourselves in a place of safety."

Associated Press contributed.