The Australian navy on Friday began the evacuations of some of the thousands of people stranded on the east coast of the fire-ravaged country as a searing weather front was set to whip up more blazes across the states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW).
At the peak of the summer holiday period, tens of thousands of holidaymakers were urged to leave national parks and tourist areas on the NSW south coast and eastern areas of Victoria before a return of temperatures above 40C (104 F) and strong winds on Saturday.
Victoria declared a state of disaster for the first time, giving authorities broad powers to compel people to leave their properties and take control of services, similar to the state of emergency that has been declared in NSW.
Andrew Crisp, emergency management commissioner for Victoria, urged people in at-risk areas to leave their homes immediately and not count on luck to avoid disaster.
“This is your opportunity to get out. It is not just the fires we know. It is the new fires that might start today,” he told ABC News.
So far this week the fires have killed seven people in NSW and two in Victoria, where 28 other people are unaccounted for.
The navy’s HMAS Choules and Sycamore started the evacuations of nearly 1,000 of the 4,000 people stranded on a beach in the isolated town of Malla¬coota in far-east Victoria, federal member of parliament Darren Chester tweeted on Friday morning.
With all roads blocked, sea transport is the only way out of the stricken town and each round trip could take a day or more.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison had called for calm on Thursday, before visiting the fire-devastated NSW town of Cobargo where he was not entirely welcome.
Video showed Morrison confronted by a group of angry locals, one of whom shouted he should be “ashamed of himself” and said he had “left the country to burn”.
Speaking to the ABC, Morrison said he understood there were strong feelings. “They have lost everything and there are still some very dangerous days ahead,” he said.
Morrison’s conservative government has long drawn criticism for not doing enough to address climate change as a cause of Australia’s savage drought and fires.
Bushfires so far this season have scorched more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) of bushland and destroyed over 1,000 homes, including 381 homes destroyed on the south coast just this week.