News National ‘Unprecedented times’: Grave fears held for missing Australians as NSW, Vic continue to burn

‘Unprecedented times’: Grave fears held for missing Australians as NSW, Vic continue to burn

People in Victoria's worst-hit bushfire spots are being encouraged to leave before conditions worsen. Photo: AAP
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At least 19 people have been confirmed dead and 29 are still missing as more than 1400 homes are lost to bushfires across Australia, with Kangaroo Island the latest target of out-of-control flames.

The national death toll could rise dramatically as grave fears grow for the 28 people unaccounted for in Victoria’s fire-ravaged east, where 50 fires continue to burn.

Another person is missing in NSW, where about 120 bushfires – 70 uncontained – are raging and the number of homes destroyed since New Years Eve has jumped to 449, the Rural Fire Service has confirmed.

Sixteen people are now dead from the region’s blazes, including a 72-year-old man who went missing in Belowra, north of Cobargo, and whose body was found in a car, raising the NSW death toll to eight since Monday.

And in South Australia, where Kangaroo Island is being ravaged, another fatality was added to the growing national death list when a man lost his life after seeking shelter in a water tank.

Exhausted Kangaroo Island firefighters have had their numbers replenished with fresh volunteers from the mainland, but high winds have made it a losing battle.

“The whole island is burning,” a distraught resident told the ABC.

Said mayor Michael Pengilly, “I’m bleeding for our community.”

As fire officials voiced fears that the Flinders Chase national park might be razed in its entirety, tourists were told to leave while they still can and locals wondered if the navy will be called upon to mount another Mallacoota-style evacuation.

“You are in danger. Act now. Identify where you will seek shelter, preferably in a solid building. Only leave if your path is clear to a safer place,” South Australia’s Country Fire Service said.

“Heat from the fire can kill you well before the flames reach you. Don’t enter this area as firefighters are now unable to prevent the fire spreading.”

Ferocious fires, which have so far torched more than 5 million hectares and destroyed some 1500 homes, are predicted to spread on Saturday as strong winds and hot weather place many fire zones under ember attack.

Meanwhile, conditions are rapidly deteriorating in Victoria’s northeast, with residents in fire zones being urged to get out before it’s too late.

On top of the 50 fires burning, there are 14 watch-and-act alerts and four “evacuate now” warnings across the state.

Nearly 800,000 hectares have already been razed and two people found dead in East Gippsland, including Buchan man Mick Roberts at his home on Wednesday.

Victorian Fred Becker, who spent Tuesday fighting fires threatening his property, is the second confirmed fatality. Mr Becker died on Wednesday after suffering a suspected heart attack.

“Our state is drying out, well and truly,” Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said.

A mass evacuation effort is underway at Mallacoota in East Gippsland, where military personnel have boarded 963 people onto a navy ship that will take them on a roughly 20 hour voyage to Western Port in Victoria.

There are still about 3000 people in limbo after a massive inferno tore through the seaside town on New Year’s Eve and forced locals and holidaymakers to take refuge on a beach and aboard boats floating offshore.

East Gippsland is among six local government areas and three Alpine areas that Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews has declared a state of disaster.

The emergency was also issued for Mount Buller, Mount Hotham and Mount Stirling Alpine resorts as high temperatures and strong winds loomed.

More than 180 firefighters from the US and Canada are also being brought in to help exhausted Victorian crews.

“These are unprecedented times,” Mr Andrews said.

“We’ve not had such large-scale fire activity, such a big fire edge, so many going fires, and then get another wave of really challenging weather a week or so later.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison tours a fire devastated Wildflower farm in Victoria. Photo: AAP

Smoke from the East Gippsland fires has enveloped parts of Victoria, particularly Melbourne, causing hazardous air quality levels.

An evacuation alert remains in place for northeastern communities including Biggara, Tintaldra, Towong, Towong Upper, Walwa, Berringama, Burrowye, Koetong, Lucyvale, Nariel Valley and Shelley.

“The strong message from those who didn’t leave (last weekend) is that they wish they had left,” Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said.

“The fires were of such ferocity and intensity that it was very traumatic and people felt their lives were absolutely at risk.

“You should leave to save your life. If you don’t we will be sending out police to make sure you’ve got the message.”

-with AAP