SYDNEY (Reuters) – Australian authorities on Wednesday confirmed a third person had died in devastating bushfires that engulfed the southeast coastal region this week and said a fourth person was missing and feared dead.
Fanned by soaring temperatures, columns of fire and smoke blackened entire towns on Monday and Tuesday, forcing thousands of residents and holidaymakers to seek shelter on beaches. Many stood in shallow water to escape the flames.
In total, there have been 12 fire-related deaths across Australia since blazes broke out a few months ago, including three volunteer firefighters, after a three-year drought in large parts of the nation created tinder-dry conditions.
Huge bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) — an area larger than Japan — and new blazes are sparked almost daily by extremely hot and windy conditions and, most recently, dry lightning strikes created by the fires themselves.
Cooler conditions on Wednesday gave the country a moment to count the cost of the fires, although there were still more than 100 blazes in New South Wales (NSW) state alone and thousands of firefighters on the ground.
The body of a man was found in a burnt car early on Wednesday on the south coast of New South Wales after emergency workers began reaching the most damaged areas, according to the state’s Rural Fire Service (RFS).
The death toll is likely to rise, NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
“We still have grave concerns for (another person),” he told reporters in Sydney.
There is “limited access to the remote area to try to identify and confirm one way or the other the status of that person.”
NSW police did not identify the missing man but said he was 72 years old and authorities have been unable to reach his home.
Several fires continue to burn in the area, making assessments difficult, though local lawmaker Fiona Phillips said she estimates as many as 200 homes have been destroyed.
Large-scale livestock and animal casualties are also expected across Australia’s east coast, though Mogo Zoo – home to Australia’s largest collection of primates, along with zebras, white rhinos, lions, tigers and giraffes – was saved.
The wildlife park was threatened by an out-of-control bushfire, though zoo keepers and firefighters managed to save all 200 animals.
In Victoria state, four people remain missing, state Premier Daniel Andrews said, after a massive blaze ripped through Gippsland – a rural region about 500 km (310 miles) east of Melbourne.
About 4,000 people in the town of Mallacoota in Victoria headed to the waterfront after the main road was cut off.
Mark Tregellas, a resident of Mallacoota who spent the night on a boat ramp, said only a late shift in the wind direction sparred lives.
“The fire just continued to grow and then the black started to descend. I couldn’t see the hand in front in my face, and it then it started to glow red and we knew the fire was coming,” Tregellas told Reuters.
“Ash started to fall from the air and then the embers started to come down. At that point, people started to bring their kids and families into the water. Thankfully, the wind changed and the fire moved away.”
With thousands of people still stranded, Australia’s military has been drafted in to provide supplies and assist with evacuations in areas, many of which have been left without power for hours.
In Ulladulla, a small coastal town about 230 km south of Sydney, many residents and holidaymakers were scrambling to get supplies, leading to long lines outside the few shops open on a public holiday.
Black Hawk helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and naval vessels have all been deployed, along with military personnel.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said authorities were working to restore communications with areas cut off by the fires, and she warned conditions will deteriorate again over the weekend.
“Weather conditions on Saturday will be as bad as they were” on Tuesday, Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.
Australia’s capital Sydney was blanketed in thick smoke, reaching about 20 times hazardous levels, prompting health warnings.
The smoke has also drifted to New Zealand where it has turned the daytime sky orange across the South Island.
Reporting by Colin Packham in Sydney; Editing by Cynthia Osterman & Kim Coghill