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Australia begins forced evacuations

January 2, 2020

Only 1,000 of the 4,000 stranded people left by ship as rescuers braced for a new heat wave. New South Wales declared a state of emergency that would allow officials to forcibly evacuate people.

Batemans Bay fires pictured from satelite
Batemans Bay fires pictured from sateliteImage: via Reuters

The Australian navy on Friday began mass evacuations ahead of an extreme heatwave and heightened fire danger on Saturday.

The navy ships HMAS Choules and Sycamore started the evacuations of around 1,000 of the 4,000 people, mostly tourists, stranded on a beach in the town of Mallacoota in Victoria. 

Thousands of people were still attempting to flee the bushfires threatening the popular tourist area on Australia's east coast. 

The authorities of New South Wales (NSW) ordered all tourists and non-residents to leave the fire zone which includes the resort town of Batemans Bay and stretches 250 kilometers (155 miles) to the border with Australian state of Victoria. NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian had also declared a seven-day state of emergency that would allow the authorities to forcibly remove people from areas threatened by fires.

Berejiklian said the state of emergency would go into effect on Friday ahead of another heat surge expected a day later.

"We don't take these decisions lightly but we also want to make sure we're taking every single precaution to be prepared for what could be a horrible day on Saturday," she told reporters.

Read moreOceans play role in Australian bushfires drama, say experts

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance called the mass flight out of the area "the largest evacuation of people out of the region ever." Traffic jams were reported on the main highway out of Batemans Bay, with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison urging people in need and those stuck in traffic to "be patient ... help will arrive."

Mallacoota fire

Daniel Andrews, premier of Victoria, declared a "state of disaster" across large areas of the state.

"Under the provisions of the Emergency Management Act, I have declared a state of disaster for six local government areas and our Alpine resorts," Andrews said at a late-night media conference in Melbourne.

Navy ship reaches beach evacuees

Wildfires have been raging across Australia for months, killing at least 18 people. On Thursday, Premier Andrews said there were "significant fears" for another 17 people who remain missing after devastating fires in his state.

Read moreAustralia: Fires worsen and reach Melbourne suburbs

Nationwide, the fires scorched some 5.36 million hectares (13.2 million acres) and destroyed 1,400 homes.

Also on Thursday, navy ship HMAS Choules made it to the coastal town of Mallacoota.

The ship arrived to bring food, water and medical supplies to residents and tourists who had been cut off from normal supply routes since New Year's Eve. 

More than 4,000 people were stranded when they had to flee to the beach to take refuge from the fires. Tourists and residents alike spent two nights without electricity or telecommunications, until authorities declared some roads safe to use.

Read moreAustralia: My country is burning

However, local officials have said that it could be days or weeks before all of the roads out of Mallacoota were cleared for use so that people can leave.

As the ship only has a capacity of 1,000, immediate evacuation won't be immediately possible for all of the people stranded in the small coastal town. There also remain rural communities that the vessel will not be able to reach.

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dj,lc/se (AFP, dpa)