Trapped tourists are expected to soon be evacuated by HMAS Choules as Victorian Premier Dan Andrews warns that grave fears are held for 17 people missing and unaccounted for after the horror bushfires that have destroyed hundreds of homes.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian declared a state of emergency from Friday, ahead of what would be a “horrible day” for much of NSW on Saturday with temperatures over 40 degrees as well as strong winds.
The naval ship has dropped anchor in waters off Mallacoota to evacuate around 800 of the 4000 people in a journey that could take up to 20 hours to reach a port near Melbourne.
At a briefing Thursday morning, evacuees were told they would access the boat by climbing aboard rope ladders and could be left stranded in the town for weeks if they don’t leave now.
Defence Force commander of the East Gippsland fires joint task force, Brigadier Doug Laidlaw, said evacuations would begin at first light on Friday.
“We are transferring personnel from shore to ship at 7am tomorrow. An hour or so later hopefully the vessel will be in a position to sail,’’ he said.
There is no power in the town, and some basic supplies are already running out.
— Elias Clure (@EliasLClure) January 2, 2020
The Victorian Premier, meanwhile, warned 17 people remained unaccounted in remote areas of East Gippsland.
“I’m sad to have to report that there are at least 17 people that at this stage we cannot account for,” Mr Andrews said.
“It may be some of those people are safe but we hold very significant fears for the welfare of anybody who is missing at this time.”
Excuse the language but conditions are shithouse off the coast of Mallacoota. HMAS Choules barely visible as CO Scott Houlihan leads a liaison team to meet with community leaders in town. Hoping to get people on board this arvo. #TYFYS @DeptDefence @CDF_Aust #lovegippsland pic.twitter.com/a5KmoD0rOA
— Darren Chester MP (@DarrenChesterMP) January 2, 2020
Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged trapped tourists to remain calm and show patience on the roads as police and emergency services work to evacuate thousands trapped along the south coast, some without access to electricity or clean water.
He warned the crisis could continue for many weeks to come.
“Unlike a flood, where the water will recede, in a fire like this, it goes on and it will continue to go on as those in the agencies have advised us, until we can get some decent rain that can deal with some of the fires that have been burning for many, many months,’’ he said.
“My simple request is to be patient. To have confidence in the State agencies that are leading the operational response on the ground.
“If you are in a position where you can get yourself to safety, please do that and follow the instructions that are available to you.”
In a fresh evacuation warning, Parks Victoria and Parks NSW are ordering tourists and campers out of National Parks and restricting access for fire-fighting activity.
— Timothy Swanston (@Tim_Swanston) January 2, 2020
NSW Rural Fire Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the big danger at the weekend was the Snowy Mountains and the south coast, where tourists have been ordered to leave the area.
“So we’re going to have a very long, difficult day of hot, dry winds, dominating out of the north, north-west before a southerly change emits. Pretty volatile stretch along the coastal stretch like we saw on New Year’s Eve with the wind strengths, gusting particularly 70, 80km/h or more in some parts,” he said.
“It is going to be a very dangerous day. It’s going to be a very difficult day. Which is why we’re ensuring the highest available orders and arrangements, instruments, for the state of New South Wales are in effect. Another precautionary measure we’re taking for the next few days is to ensure there are state wide total fire bans in place for tomorrow and Saturday.”
The Prime Minister also flagged a debate about more aggressive land clearing in the dangerous conditions.
“Other issues of how you manage hazard reduction are important, because as you say, the impact, more broadly of climate change on these issues has a pronounced effect on the length of the fire season,’’ he said.
“Hazard reduction for national parks, dealing with land clearing laws, zoning laws and planning walls around people’s properties and where they can be built in countries like Australia, up and down the coast. There are many restrictions around those effects that have to be reviewed on the basis on the broader climatic effect we are seeing in this country.”
Emergency Minister David Littleproud urged tourists and motorists to follow closely what authorities were telling them to do.
“It is your responsibility to listen to those emergency service personnel, to do what they tell you but to be prepared and to act now. This is not “She will be right” sort of moment,’’ he said. “This is a serious situation as we get into the weekend.”
Football legend loses home
Meanwhile, rugby league legend Ron Coote’s wife has revealed she was forced to jump in Lake Conjola to escape the flames. She and her daughter spent nearly an hour swimming before being rescued by a neighbour on a jet ski.
The couple lost their family home in the inferno.
“That’s life, you get on with it … we’re not going to let this interfere with our great life we have down here,” he said.
“We need food, we need to be able to leave here to get food, the shops have nothing, there is no water on the shelves. There is nothing in the shops.”
“I think it’s just crazy that they’re (the government) doing that to us. We need to be able to go into town and come back if we have got to. The number one message is, the fires all the time that are coming never used to happen years ago.”
In NSW seven people have died since Monday night, taking the number of deaths this bushfire season in NSW to at least 15.