Victorian firefighters already battling massive bushfires throughout the state’s east fear lightning may spark fresh blazes as hotter temperatures arrive on Saturday.
In South Australia, where Kangaroo Island is being ravaged, another fatality was added to the growing national death toll when a man lost his life after seeking shelter in a water tank.
The national 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.
Communities in the worst-hit areas have been urged to evacuate and emergency warnings – the highest alert level – were in place for five fires late on Friday night.
An EMERGENCY WARNING – BUSHFIRE has been issued for Bendoc, Bonang, Cabanandra, Deddick Valley, Delegate River, Dellicknora, Goongerah, Haydens Bog, Nurran, Roaring Camp, Tubbut.
— VicEmergency (@vicemergency) January 3, 2020
Temperatures are expected to creep higher on Saturday, with parts of Gippsland forecast to hit 40 degrees and areas of the northeast to reach 45, before a gusty southerly change in the afternoon.
Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said the weather change could mean new fires.
“Don’t just be focused on the fires we’ve got at the moment. Be thinking about where there would be other fires,” he warned Victorians on Thursday.
Mr Crisp said it is also possible some current fires could merge on Saturday or the days to follow, including a blaze in Corryong in the northeast and another in southern NSW.
A state of emergency has been declared in NSW and evacuation orders issued for much of the state’s southeast as the Rural Fire Service warns some towns cannot be defended.
“We don’t want to see anybody else killed in these fires, our pure focus for [Saturday] is about the preservation of life,” NSW Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said.
A unprecedented state of disaster was declared in Victoria on Thursday, triggering powers introduced after the devastating 2009 Black Saturday bushfires, including allowing authorities to compel people to leave.
Areas covered by the Victorian declaration are the East Gippsland Shire, Mansfield Shire, Wellington Shire, Wangaratta Rural Shire, Towong Shire and Alpine Shire. It also covers Mount Buller, Mount Hotham and the Mount Stirling Alpine Resorts.
Evacuation alerts were in place late on Friday night for blazes near the Buchan Valley, Abbeyard, Bruthen and surrounds, the upper Snowy area, and north of Mount Taylor.
Emergency warnings were active for the blaze near Corryong in the northeast and others near East Gippsland’s Anglers Rest and Goongerah.
The fire danger has also spread to Victoria’s west, with an emergency warning issued for a blaze at Wade Junction, near Nelson.
Total fire bans have been declared on Saturday for the Mallee, Northern Country, North Central, North East, East Gippsland, West and South Gippsland weather districts.
Whole island burning
Exhausted Kangaroo Island firefighters have had their numbers replenished with fresh volunteers from the mainland, but high winds have made it a losing battle.
As thousands of residents and holiday-makers fled the fire zones in both NSW and Victoria, the military has also been supporting the fire response, with about 1200 people evacuated from the Victorian coastal town of Mallacoota by navy vessels on Friday.
Asked whether a more national response is needed to bushfires in the future, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said agencies are already working together well.
“After every fire season, these things are reviewed, but there already is very strong coordination,” he told Channel Nine’s A Current Affair on Friday.
Mr Morrison said he had been working the phones to source more overseas firefighters and aircraft to help fight the blazes and that people should expect more planes will come.
“This is what we do, as things escalate,” he said.