Australia orders evacuation of fire-ravaged towns

SYDNEY (AFP) – Australia ordered residents and tourists out of the path of raging bushfires yesterday as the country braced for a weekend heatwave expected to fan the deadly inferno.

Catastrophic blazes ripped through the country’s south-east on New Year’s Eve, killing at least eight people and stranding holidaymakers.

New South Wales (NSW) Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a seven-day state of emergency that allows for forced evacuations beginning today, for the third time in Australia’s most populated region this fire season.

“We don’t take these decisions lightly but we also want to make sure we’re taking every single precaution to be prepared for what could be a horrible day on Saturday,” she said.

It came as the NSW Rural Fire Service declared two “tourist leave zones” stretching almost 300 kilometres from the town of Nowra along the picturesque coast to neighbouring Victoria state, where people are also being urged to flee.

A helicopter drops water on a bushfire outside of Batemans Bay in New South Wales. PHOTO: AFP

Residents and visitors in two inland areas – which include popular holiday resorts in the Snowy Mountains – were also told to leave, with people given less than 24 hours to evacuate before a heatwave brings gusting winds and temperatures above 40 degrees Celsius.

That weather will create conditions officials say will be as bad as – if not worse than – Tuesday, the deadliest day in a months-long bushfire crisis.

At least 18 people are now known to have died in one of Australia’s most devastating bushfire seasons yet, and there are growing fears the toll could rise dramatically, with officials in Victoria saying 17 people were missing in the state.

Many tourists and residents spent two nights isolated with no electricity or telecommunications, before authorities yesterday declared some roads safe to use.

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance called it the “largest evacuation of people out of the region ever”, with queues of cars reportedly stretching for kilometres along roads toward Sydney and Canberra as thousands fled.