Navy ships and military aircraft were deployed alongside emergency crews to provide humanitarian relief and assess the damage from the deadliest spate of blazes yet in a months-long bush fire crisis.
Police said three more bodies were discovered Wednesday, bringing the confirmed death toll, including a volunteer firefighter killed when a “fire tornado” flipped his 10-ton truck.
There were mounting fears for several others missing after the country’s southeast was devastated by out-of-control blazes, which destroyed more than 200 homes and left some small towns in ruins.
Information was trickling out of coastal communities where thousands of vacationers and locals were thought to have seen in the New Year taking refuge from flames at surf clubs, as power outages and damage to telecommunications towers brought down phone lines and cut off the internet.
New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said emergency services are facing a “real challenge” trying to help injured people in isolated areas.
“We haven’t been able to get access via roads or via aircraft. It’s been … too dangerous and we simply can’t access, nor can the people in these areas get out,” he said.
Fires were raging across the country and the defense force said it could take days for the military to reach people in some remote areas.
There was relief in the town of Mallacoota where towering columns of smoke turned the sky pitch black and nearby fires caused waves of “ember attacks” after a change in the wind spared around 4,000 people who had huddled on the foreshore.
Survivors cheered firefighters who battled to protect them by creating a protective ring of fire trucks.
“I understand there was a standing ovation at the end of that for the firefighters,” Victoria Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told public broadcaster Australian Broadcasting Corp.
Authorities were preparing for the possibility that Mallacoota could be cut off for weeks: aircraft had started dropping supplies into the town while a barge with two weeks’ worth of supplies is due to arrive later Wednesday. ■