The ongoing Australian bushfire crisis has forced thousands of people in the southeast part of the country to flee towards waterfronts, Bloomberg reported, with an estimated 4,000-5,000 individuals in Mallacoota in Victoria state sheltering on beaches and piers as flames swept in on Tuesday.
Per the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, eight communities in Victoria faced emergency warnings on Tuesday morning and at least four people had not been located. Residents and visitors in Mallacoota, a tourist destination, fled to the coast and nearby lake; ABC reported many were ready to jump in the water as the flames closed in. The network also wrote that multiple people in the area had heard explosions, with Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp saying there were “very significant losses” of property in the region.
Photos and videos posted to Twitter from Mallacoota showed the sky taking on nightmarish hues, coupled with clouds of smoke and extensive ash fall.
Cooler temperatures in Victoria overnight created windy conditions, fueling the fire. The Guardian wrote that by 1:30 p.m. ET, flames were coming perilously close to the edge of the water by Mallacoota, and one local resident told ABC Gippsland that there was fire in the center of town and 20-meter flames in the distance that could be its outskirts burning.
“We saw a big burst of very big flames in Shady Gully,” that local said, according to the Guardian. “As I speak to you I’m looking across Coull’s Inlet and there are big flames… and they would be impacting houses. That’s not good at all.”
Charles Livingstone, another man in the area, told the Guardian he estimated around 350 people were holed up in a community center, some of whom had moved there to avoid clouds of smoke at the piers.
“The [Country Fire Authority] advised yesterday they would protect the waterfront jetty and the hard stands that go along the lower lake here, just in front of where we are,” Livingstone said. “They were saying we’ll protect you down there if the worst comes to worst. I’m sure the CFA will do what they said, but the relief center to us seemed like the best option.”
“Mallacoota is currently under attack, there are a number of houses we believe have been lost in and around that community,” CFA chief Steve Warrington told CNN. “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.”
Deutsche Welle reported that residents in the suburbs of Bundoora, Greensborough and Mill Park, outside the Victoria state capital of Melbourne, were told it was too late to evacuate and “take shelter indoors” on Monday afternoon Fires were also raging in the states of New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania. Volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul, 28, died on Monday while responding to the Green Valley blaze in Jingellic near the NSW-Victoria border.
NSW Rural Fire Service Superintendent Patrick Westwood told ABC that McPaul’s truck, driven by a firefighter with over 35 years of experience, had flipped due to a “fire tornado” during the collapse of a pyrocumulus cloud. Another firefighter suffered serious burns, he said.
“… Quite unexpectedly, very suddenly, they experienced extreme winds and what could only be described as a fire tornado that lifted the back of the truck, fully inverted it and landed it on its roof, trapping three people, three crew that is, and unfortunately, one of them fatally,” Westwood told ABC. “… [The driver] thought he was in the right spot—as he was, from what I can understand—and just this freakish weather event that would have to be seen to be believed. Even then, other veteran firefighters don’t believe what they saw, [it] engulfed that vehicle with flame, fire, and strong winds and literally picked up an 8-tonne truck and flipped it over.”
In NSW, according to CNN, some 70 fires started on Monday alone, with 20 still burning on Tuesday. Officials estimate that over 10 million acres have burned across Australia this fire season, according to Reuters, and there have been at least nine deaths since October.
Australia’s devastating fires through the end of 2019 has been connected to El Niño and climate change, with a Guardian analysis of the last 44 years finding that the two factors have pushed the fire season earlier over time. Earlier this month, NASA data shared with the Guardian showed that hot, dry conditions associated with climate change have thrown Australia’s carbon cycle out of whack, with forests that reabsorb emissions from the blazes unable to keep pace with the sheer pace of the blazes.