Firefighters are making use of milder weather to get an upper hand on blazes still burning across Victoria, as evacuations get underway and food is shipped to thousands of people still stranded after fires.
After spending more than a day at emergency level, bushfires in East Gippsland were all downgraded to Watch and Act as of Thursday morning. At least 50 fires are still burning across the state.
Fires in NSW have also been downgraded by Thursday morning but authorities are warning the relief will not be for long and it is time to evacuate.
It comes as fire services are counting the number of homes lost in the New Year’s Eve fires. Latest figures show close to 400 homes were destroyed in NSW – but that number could rise as assessments continue. It takes the total number of properties lost in the state this fire season to 1298.
Meanwhile, in Western Australia, a catastrophic weather warning is in place for the Goldfields districts amid predicted soaring temperatures.
Travellers have been stranded in remote desert areas for two days, with parts of the Eyre Highway shut.
That same heatwave will make its way to South Australia then to the Australian east coast in coming days. It leaves a short window for firefighters to get on top of out of control fires and there are concerns the blazes could join together.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said conditions on Saturday would likely be worse than those on New Year’s Eve.
Setting containment lines would be the RFS priority until that time.
“We’re expecting to see temperatures up into the high 40s, a westerly-northwesterly wind pattern will dominate which means it’ll bring very hot, very dry air across the region,” Mr Fitzsimmons told Nine.
Stranded survivors await food, news
As the town of Buchan reels from the death of “legend” local Mick Roberts, the first victim confirmed dead in the East Gippsland fires, other families are nervously awaiting news of loved ones.
Seven people have been killed in the NSW bushfires in recent days, and authorities are warning that number is expected to rise.
Three of the seven dead were confirmed on Wednesday. The fatalities are on top of four others who lost their lives this week:
- Father and son, Robert Salway, 63, and Patrick Salway, 29, who died defending their dairy farm at Cobargo near Bega on New Year’s Eve
- A 70-year-old man found dead late on Tuesday outside a home at Yatte Yattah, west of Lake Conjola
- Volunteer firefighter Sam McPaul, 28, who died near Albury when his truck rolled in a freak firestorm
Phones and power are down in some areas, making it impossible for worried relatives to make contact with loved ones. Families are being urged to register missing people with the Red Cross.
For survivors, the focus is on how they will access clean water, food and other necessities as they remain stranded and unsure of the state of their homes.
Military and police are being deployed to help communities. On Thursday morning, days worth of food and supplies will arrive on naval ships to Mallacoota, one of the Victorian coastal towns cut off after the fires. More than 4000 tourists are still waiting to get out of the town.
With roads closed and fires burning around the towns, the vessels are also expected to be used to take stranded tourists to safety.
Black Hawk helicopters arrived late Wednesday night to take vulnerable victims away from the smoke-impacted region.
Unloading the vessel at Mallacoota. pic.twitter.com/uiIMJuIHP9
— Victoria Police (@VictoriaPolice) January 1, 2020
The total area burnt has now exceeded that of the Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009.
Conditions are expected to worsen on Saturday and dry lightning has continued to spark new fires.
At 5.30am there are 110 fires burning across NSW with over 50 yet to be contained.
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 1, 2020
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews spent Wednesday in East Gippsland where he said emotions were running high.
“I spoke with people today and they just said it was hurricane-like, horrifying, terrifying, the most frightening experience of their life,” Mr Andrews said.
“The next few days are going to be a lot of hard work and the next few months will be a very long and steady process of helping these communities to rebuild.”
So far, confirmed property losses are 24 structures at Buchan, 19 at Sarsfield, 10 at Mallacoota and up to 15 at Cudgewa.
Power has been cut to more than 7000 properties at East Gippsland and more than 1800 in the northeast. AusNet said it could take days to restore power.
After a request from the premier on Tuesday, military personnel have begun helping with the relief effort, including undertaking rapid damage assessments.
Naval vessels including HMAS Choules left Sydney bound for the East Gippsland coast on Tuesday evening and training vessel MV Sycamore has also been deployed.