Australia fires: Navy rescues people from fire-hit Mallacoota

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The Australian navy has evacuated around 1,000 tourists and residents who were trapped in the fire-ravaged town of Mallacoota on the Victoria coast.

Throughout Friday, landing vessels took people to two ships – MV Sycamore and the much larger HMAS Choules.

A local MP, Darren Chester, called it an “unprecedented mass relocation of civilians”.

Some 4,000 residents and tourists fled to the beach on Monday night, when racing bushfires encircled the town.

The evacuees will be taken to Western Port, the navy said – around 16 hours’ voyage down the coast.

With roads cut off, the military evacuated around 60 people by helicopter on Thursday. The air has so far been too smoky for further air evacuations.

The evacuation was voluntary. By Thursday night, 963 had signed up for the boats, with a few more doing so on Friday morning, Commander Scott Houlihan said.

The larger ship, HMAS Choules, has a “few hundred beds”. Further trips are possible, depending on demand. The evacuees were allowed to take their pets on the ship.

Victoria’s Premier Daniel Andrews declared a state of disaster for six areas and resorts, including Mallacoota.

“Some people will want to go, some people will be happy to stay,” he said of the evacuation.

High temperatures and strong winds are forecast for the weekend, leading to what officials call “widespread extreme fire danger”.

In other parts of Victoria, people were urged to evacuate by road in convoy. There were also large queues at railway stations.

“It is forecast we will see dry thunderstorms coming across the state and the potential of lightning strikes,” Andrew Crisp, emergency management commissioner for Victoria, warned on Friday.

He called on people to leave as soon as possible.

“This is your opportunity to get out,” he said. “It is not just the fires we know [about]. It is the new fires that might start today.”

Thousands of people are also fleeing parts of neighbouring New South Wales, where a week-long state of emergency is in force.

Since September fires have killed at least 20 people in the two states and dozens remain missing. The fires have so far destroyed more than 1,300 homes.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Scott Morrison has come under attack for his response to the fires.

He was heckled by angry locals in Cobargo, New South Wales, and had to cut short his visit to the fire-hit town.

In a news conference on Friday, he said he understood people’s anger and that they had “suffered a great lot” and were “feeling very raw”.

Mr Morrison has also faced criticism for his climate change policies, with many saying urgent action must be taken.

But he insists that Australia is meeting the challenge “better than most countries” and fulfilling international targets.

Opposition Labor leader Anthony Albanese said the government was not doing enough.

Mr Morrison was earlier criticised for going on holiday to Hawaii as the bushfire crisis worsened. Public anger at his absence eventually forced him to cut that trip short.

 

Zainab Sa’id