One of the largest evacuations in Australia’s history was underway Friday ahead of hot weather and strong winds that are forecast to worsen devastating wildfires raging across the country, The Associated Press informs.
More than 200 fires were burning, and warnings of extreme danger to come Saturday prompted mass evacuations. Traffic was gridlocked as people fled and firefighters escorted convoys of evacuees as fires threatened to close roads. Navy ships were called in to pluck hundreds of people stranded on beaches.
Victoria Premier Daniel Andrews declared a disaster across much of the eastern part of the state, allowing the government to order evacuations in an area with as many as 140,000 permanent residents and tens of thousands more vacationers. “If you can leave, you must leave,” Andrews said.
In South Australia state, fire officials said the weather conditions were cause for concern because fires were still burning or smoldering.
“The ignition sources are already there,” Country Fire Service chief officer Mark Jones said. “There are millions of sparks out there ready to go if they break containment lines.”
The early and devastating start to Australia’s summer wildfires has made this season the worst on record. About 5 million hectares (12.35 million acres) of land have burned, at least 19 people have been killed, and more than 1,400 homes have been destroyed, AP noted.
This week, at least 448 homes have been destroyed on the New South Wales south coast and dozens were burned in Victoria. Ten deaths have been confirmed in the two states this week, and Victoria authorities also say 28 people are missing. Fires are also burning in Western Australia, South Australia, and Tasmania.
The navy evacuated hundreds from Mallacoota, a coastal town in Victoria cut off for days by wildfires that forced as many as 4,000 residents and tourists to shelter on beaches. Landing craft ferried people to the HMAS Choules offshore.
Choules Commander Scott Houlihan said 963 people had signed up for evacuation by sea and more had been airlifted to safety, AP adds.
In New South Wales, a state of emergency and a total fire ban were in place. State Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers urged people to not wait to leave, noting four people in the state died in their cars as they made late attempts to flee.
“We know people have got a little bit of fire fatigue. They’ve been dealing with this now for months,” Rogers said. “But we need people to stay focused. Tomorrow is not the day to drop your guard. Take it seriously. If you’re in those areas where we put those maps out, do not be there.”
Rogers later told reporters than anyone who chose not to leave must take responsibility for their own safety. “We are giving them information and being honest about the risk, but if people choose to stay that is on them,” he said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was inclined to cancel a scheduled trip to India later this month because of the wildfires. In December, he cut short a family holiday in Hawaii in the face of public anger at his absence.