SYDNEY (AFP) – Relief supplies began reaching thousands of people stranded in fire-ravaged Australian towns yesterday after deadly bushfires ripped through popular tourist spots and rural areas leaving at least eight people dead.
Navy ships and military aircraft were deployed alongside emergency crews to provide humanitarian relief and assess the damage from the deadliest spate of blazes yet in a months-long bushfire crisis.
Police said three more bodies were discovered yesterday, bringing the confirmed death toll since late Monday to eight, including a volunteer firefighter who died when a “fire tornado” flipped his 10-tonne truck.
The latest deaths takes the toll to at least 17 people killed in one of Australia’s most devastating bushfire seasons of recent years.
There were mounting fears for several others missing after the country’s southeast was devastated by out-of-control blazes, which destroyed more than 200 homes and left some small towns in ruins.
The fires encircled seaside communities to trap thousands of holidaymakers and locals, cutting electricity and communication services that in many areas remained down late yesterday.
New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said emergency services faced a “real challenge” accessing isolated areas to help injured people, at least three of whom were later airlifted out suffering from burns.
As fires raged across the country, some of the stranded were taking advantage of temporary road re-openings to return home while others faced a second trying night bedding down in make-shift accommodation.
In the coastal town of Eden, where evacuees were camping at football fields, volunteer Loureen Kelly said food was “running low very quickly” amid panic buying.
“Basic things like bread we ran out of yesterday. We had milk and very low to no fruit in town,” she told public broadcaster ABC, adding that the community had rallied to provide food to the evacuees.
In Mallacoota where 4,000 had huddled on the foreshore as fire swept through, authorities were preparing for the possibility that the town could be cut off for weeks.
Aircraft have begun dropping supplies and ships carrying two weeks’ worth of supplies arrived late yesterday.
Paramedics reportedly assessed the injured and moved those requiring further treatment to a 25-bed floating medical centre off the coast.
Many people have returned to find their homes burnt to the ground, with the task of rebuilding shattered communities expected to take years.
Gary Hinton escaped flames roaring through Cobargo early on Tuesday and returned to the stricken town to find his father’s house largely intact, but many other buildings reduced to cinders.
“It wasn’t good. It’s turned out pretty devastating for everyone,” he told AFP.
Cooler temperatures and easing winds provided a window of opportunity for relief efforts Wednesday, but there were concerns over new fires sparked by lightning in alpine regions.
“There’s a lot of people holidaying, again, up in those areas,” Victoria Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said. “We’ll be prioritising those (fires) and hitting them as hard as we can. We don’t need any new fires.”
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.