The military will be brought in to help local emergency services as Victoria fights devastating bushfires in East Gippsland, with thousands of people seeking evacuation and four people unaccounted for.
More than 200,000 hectares of land is being ravaged by fire.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison confirmed on Tuesday afternoon he would respond to Premier Daniel Andrews’ earlier plea for military assistance.
He said call for extra firefighters would extend as far as the US and Canada – and help is expected to arrive as soon as a week’s time.
“[The] federal government, especially our defence forces, are working together with the Victorian government to respond to Victorian bushfires,” Mr Morrison wrote on Twitter.
Federal Government, especially our Defence Forces, are working together with the Victorian Government to respond to Victorian bushfires. VIC CFA are leading the response. Premier @DanielAndrewsMP & I are in regular contact. Reports of persons unaccounted for are very distressing.
— Scott Morrison (@ScottMorrisonMP) December 31, 2019
At a press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said people in East Gippsland confirmed 24 properties at Buchan and 19 at Sarsfield had been destroyed in fires. Eight emergency alerts remain in place.
Mr Crisp confirmed four people remained unaccounted for, and said emergency services were recruiting helicopters to drop food and other goods to affected, isolated centres. The Princes Highway remains closed.
Authorities provided no further details about the missing people.
Mr Crisp said Australian Defence Force personnel would be on the ground in East Gippsland and north-east Victoria on Wednesday. They will carry out initial impact assessments, and fly in food and emergency supplies.
CFA chief officer Steve Warrington confirmed the fire front had passed the town of Mallacoota, which was one of the main concerns for loss of life and property.
“The wind change has gone through and it’s now bypassed that town,” Mr Warrington said on Tuesday afternoon.
“I understand there was a cheer
- Keep up to date with the latest on the Victorian bushfires here
— Bradley Deacon 🇦🇺 (@BradleyWDeacon) December 30, 2019
Much of the area is made up of isolated communities, which made it difficult to spread the latest information, Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said.
Power and NBN remained inaccessible to thousands of properties, she said.
A specialised task force had been established to respond to urgent and recovery needs.
“To make sure that we’ve got quick decision-making and ability to work through red tape and the right people at the table, we’ve established a bushfire response and recovery task force, led by Andrew Crisp, who will report directly to me,” Ms Neville said.
“The idea of this is to make sure that there are absolutely no barriers, no red tape, no bureaucracy that gets in the way of us being able to, firstly, meet those immediate needs while still managing the fire risk, and secondly, being able to then move into the broader response and relief side.”
However, as one danger passes, another appears. Shortly before the press conference, a watch and act alert was issued for Victoria’s Alpine Region, affecting Mount Bulla, Mount Hotham, Mount Buffalo and Jamieson.
EMERGENCY WARNING – BUSHFIRE
Incident Location: Upper Snowy Cluster
— CFA Updates (@CFA_Updates) December 31, 2019
Seven emergency warnings, the highest alert, remain in place across the region, with another for a fire straddling the Victoria-NSW border at Corryong/Walwa.
Thousands of people are seeking support at about a dozen relief centres in the state.
Milder weather is expected over the next 24 hours, giving firefighters some reprieve, but Mr Crisp said people must remain vigilant.
“No one can afford to relax in that part of the state,” he said.
An EMERGENCY WARNING – BUSHFIRE has been issued for Mallacoota, Gipsy Point, Karbeethong, Tamboon, Club Terrace, Combienbar, Cann River and surrounds.
The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately.
— CFA Updates (@CFA_Updates) December 31, 2019
On Tuesday morning, a clothing brand Cubin’ posted a harrowing video to Facebook that showed the apocalyptic-like conditions in the area.
The footage shows a boat of people who have taken to the water in a bid to escape the fires. An hour later, further footage posted to the page showed the crew has returned to land and was trying to defend their and their neighbours’ homes.
Despite the best efforts from fire crews and residents, it does appear properties have been destroyed in Mallacoota. It is not yet known just how widespread the damage is.
About noon on Tuesday, there were reports on social media of an explosion in the Mallacoota town centre, thought to be anything from household gas cylinders to the town petrol station exploding.
CFA incident controller for the Mallacoota fire Ben Rankin told ABC radio the fires could be Gippsland’s version of the Black Saturday fires.
“Significant fire has moved into [Mallacoota and Genoa] earlier this morning and there has been significant impact there, I believe there have been quite a number of houses impacted and private property burnt,” Mr Rankin said on Tuesday afternoon.
While conditions have eased, authorities are still urging people to activate and review bushfire survival plans.
Situation remains volatile and potentially dangerous, especially on #Victoria's eastern #fire grounds. Multiple #bushfires are at #Emergency #Warning levels and people should continue to keep a very close watch on changes and #warnings at https://t.co/8cdJQewVeP @CFA_Updates pic.twitter.com/NiDaxmglPP
— Bureau of Meteorology, Victoria (@BOM_Vic) December 31, 2019