Thousands of people are trapped on a beach in southeast Australia after fleeing their homes, as strong winds brought wildfires and smoke so thick that the morning sky turned dark.
On Tuesday, about 4,000 residents and visitors were forced to leave their homes and vacation accommodation in Mallacoota, in the state of Victoria, authorities said, as wildfires rage across the region.
The town activated its emergency siren warning of the imminent fire threat early in the morning, and residents headed to the seaside, following an evacuation plan previously outlined in community meetings.
“There’s no way in or out,” Mallacoota resident Jason Selmes told CNN after evacuating his home Tuesday morning. As the day wore on, the sky lightened to a bright orange, and the fires began spreading through the town; photos from the ground show homes set aflame and an approaching fire line.
There are three emergency strike teams with the residents at the beach, and emergency services are setting up medical centers and safe evacuation locations, according to state agency Victoria Emergency.
“Mallacoota is currently under attack, there are a number of houses we believe have been lost in and around that community,” Country Fire Authority Chief Steve Warrington said. “It is pitch black, it is quite scary in that community, the community right now is under threat but we will hold our line and they will be protected.”
Several people chose not to evacuate to the beach and have remained in their homes, he added.
Four people remain unaccounted for in the state of Victoria with a “very real fear for their safety”, Premier Daniel Andrews said at a news conference on Tuesday. He did not provide any further information on identities or exact locations. In the neighboring state of New South Wales, where fires are also raging, two people were found dead Tuesday in the town of Cobargo, with a third person still unaccounted for.
As of Monday, there were more than 10 fires in the East Gippsland region, including three large ones that have been burning for more than a month, according to Victoria Emergency. Many of the fires were started on Sunday by dry lightning, and rapidly spread due to strong winds and hot, dry weather.
On Sunday, after many of the fires began in the larger East Gippsland region, authorities urged residents and vacationers to evacuate, warning that “it is not possible to provide support and aid to all the visitors” in the area.
Emergency warnings remain in place on Tuesday, with Victoria authorities urging residents to take shelter indoors. “It is too late to leave,” said Victoria Emergency, warning that Mallacoota residents were “in danger … and need to act immediately to survive.”
Located in the far eastern corner of Victoria state, East Gippsland is home to about 80,000 people, who are scattered across remote villages and towns. The region is popular with tourists, who go to see wildlife and hike in the national parks.
Fires have devastated parts of multiple states for months. Across Victoria, 70 new fires started on Monday alone, of which more than 20 are still active. In NSW there are more than 100 fires burning on Tuesday, of which 60 are not yet contained.
More than 900 homes have been destroyed in NSW alone, and that number will likely increase as firefighters struggle to contain the massive fires.
In Batemans Bay, NSW, hundreds of families are also evacuating their homes on Tuesday under an eerie orange sky. “It was like we were in hell,” vacationer Zoe Simmons told CNN. “We were all covered in ash.”
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned there are thousands of people along the coast taking refuge with “a long, difficult, dangerous night ahead.” He said that the fires on Tuesday spread faster and further than previously predicted, adding: “it’s been a truly awful day.”
On Monday, a 28-year-old volunteer firefighter died in NSW after strong winds rolled his truck over. Earlier in December, two other NSW volunteer firefighters died after their vehicle hit a tree during firefighting operations.
State and federal authorities have activated emergency resources and deployed thousands of firefighters since the fire season began in early September. The Australian Defence Force has sent assistance to multiple states, including air force aircraft and army personnel. The United States, Canada, and New Zealand have also sent additional firefighters to help.
By Jessie Yeung and Isaac Yee, CNN