An “unprecedented mass evacuation” of families and holiday-makers from Mallacoota began on Friday morning, with up to 1000 people being loaded into Navy vessels in multiple trips to safety.
Local tourism operator Kevin Gleed from Wilderness Fishing Tours told the ABC he witnessed “plenty of people” already on board by 9.30am on Friday with just a few waiting to be transported by small coaches to the foreshore.
“It’s foggy, there’s still a threat of fires,” he said.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said t
— Julian Evans (@FocusNewsNow) January 2, 2020
The evacuations from the East Gippsland town’s foreshore came as a second person has been confirmed dead in Victoria’s bushfire-ravaged far east, as nine areas of the state were declared a disaster zone in a bid to force residents and tourists to flee.
The warning to evacuate are underway across large parts of the state as authorities warn lives will be at risk amid strong winds and temperatures topping over 40 degrees on Saturday.
Smaller naval vessels docked late on Thursday with food and water and will help evacuate about 1000 people from Mallacoota from Friday morning, with the navy expected to make “multiple trips”.
Another 30 people were evacuated to Paynesville on private charter boats organised by the local caravan park operators. A further 25 were airlifted out of the area on Thursday night.
In other parts of the state authorities warned there was no choice about whether or not to evacuate.
Announcing unprecedented powers in an 11pm press conference on Thursday, Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews declared the following nine areas a state of disaster:
East Gippsland Shire, Mansfield Shire, Wellington Shire, Wangaratta Rural Shire, Towong Shire and Alpine Shire.
Mount Buller, Mount Hotham and the Mount Stirling Alpine Resorts are also covered.
More than 50 fires are raging across Victoria with the worst burning predominantly in East Gippsland, the north-east and the alpine region.
With homes lost and thousands of tourists displaced, the Victorian government has called on the Prime Minister to send in the Australian Defence Force to set up safe zones, including tents and emergency housing for evacuees.
“If you can leave, then you must leave. Your safety cannot be guaranteed,” Mr Andrews said.
The decision to declare a state of disaster follows similar moves in NSW where tourists and residents are being urged to leave areas right along the south coast, from the Victorian border to Jervis Bay and the Snowy Mountains.
The NSW state of emergency began on Friday morning and will remain for seven days.
Thousands of people have hit the roads to flee areas that could be in the path of bushfires in coming days. But attempts to leave are being hampered by dwindling fuel supplies and traffic jams.
Victorian Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said the late-night decision to declare a state of emergency for some regions came after it became clear the forecast conditions would be worse than had been expected.
“Are we going to be arresting people who don’t leave? No, we are not – but this is dangerous situation and lives are at risk,” Ms Neville said.
“This is a serious risk that we face, as a state”.
Mr Andrews also confirmed a second person had died in the East Gippsland fires. It follows the death of Buchan great-grandfather Mick Roberts.
Another 28 people are still missing.
“We hold grave concerns about their safety,” the Premier said.
“A second person has been confirmed as deceased, but we can’t provide the name of that person.
“I think there’s still some family members that need to be talked to.”
Victoria Police said the man’s body was found at a property in Maramingo Creek, near Genoa, by family on Wednesday night.
“It is believed the man suffered a medical episode while fighting the fires,” they said.
Conditions will be worse than initially expected. The Victoria Government has declared a State of Disaster. This gives authorities the ability to compel/force evacuations and control/make use of a person’s property. This is not good. #vicfires #gippsnews pic.twitter.com/BpEHyoGRX3
— Tyson Whelan (@tyson_whelan) January 2, 2020
The unprecedented powers in Victoria include taking possession and making use of any person’s property to respond to the disaster, controlling movement in and out of the disaster area, and forcing people to evacuate from the disaster area or any part of it.
It is the first time the Victorian government has used these powers since they were added to the Emergency Management Act following the devastating Black Saturday bushfires in February 2009.
At Lakes Entrance in Victoria, the Country Fire Association had a blunt response when asked what towns were in danger, according to local journalist Tyson Whelan, who live tweeted the briefing.
On a personal note: I’ve been covering the #EastGippslandFires from sun up until sun down for the last 5 days now and I gather from authorities that the worst is yet to come. My family and I will be leaving Lakes Entrance in the coming hours. I’ll try to keep followers updated.
— Tyson Whelan (@tyson_whelan) January 2, 2020
“From Bairnsdale to Queensland, the whole eastern seaboard has either gone or is going to go,” the CFA spokesman said.
The Lakes Entrance police chief then told the crowd of 500 residents: “Get a bit of fuel, charge your phone. If you don’t live here, please consider leaving.
“I’ve already spoken to my family, they’re going west.
“I’m pretty sure I’ve made myself clear.”