(TMU) — Thousands of locals and vacationers were plunged into nightmarish conditions Tuesday as fast-moving bushfires tore through southeast Australia, ripping through popular tourist sites and forcing people to seek refuge on nearby beaches.
Coastal towns filled with tourists who hoped to usher in 2020 in idyllic beach conditions instead were confronted with apocalyptic skies that glowed red as the massive fires mingled with choking black smoke, reports AFP. In the meantime, terrifying extreme dry-lightning storms raged nearby, threatening more fires.
About 4,000 people fled to the beaches in the town of Mallacoota as fires encircled the seaside towns, with many residents on boats even taking to the seas in a bid to ensure safety in the face of the encroaching inferno.
"A mother took this photo. Her two primary school aged sons are in the boat with her.
They're out on the #Mallacoota lake trying to stay safe from fire, it doesn't look like it – but it's daytime." ~ABC Gippsland.#bushfirecrisis #vicfires #NSWfires #Bushfires #bushfiresVIC pic.twitter.com/CqA1FgMM02
— Fiona Bateman (@feebateman) December 31, 2019
Authorities had been warning tens of thousands of tourists enjoying their Australian summer holiday to evacuate the area, but many waited until it was too late to leave.
Local resident Jason Selmes, who evacuated his Mallacoota home, told CNN that “there’s no way in or out” of the seaside town.
Since late Monday, dozens of properties are estimated to have been destroyed while at least seven people remain missing in New South Wales (NSW) and Victoria.
In Batemans Bay, NSW, hundreds of families fled their homes Tuesday as the sky turned forebodingly orange. Vacationer Zoe Simmons told CNN:
“It was like we were in hell … We were all covered in ash.”
Batemans Bay CBD has lost power and is pitch black at 12.20pm. pic.twitter.com/cPry7nsBHL
— Andrea Cantle (@AndreaCantle) December 31, 2019
Intense fires, thick smoke, and dry-lightning storms provoked by the historic blazes combined to prevent aerial reconnaissance and water-bombing operations from proceeding, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
Australia’s bushfires have grown so monstrous that they are generating their own weather in the form of pyro-cumulonimbus clouds, or thunderstorms that create more fires, according to Victoria’s Bureau of Meteorology.
On Monday, the bureau tweeted:
“Pyro-cumulonimbus clouds have developed to altitudes over 16km in East #Gippsland this afternoon. These fire-induced storms can spread fires through lightning, lofting of embers and generation of severe wind outflows.”
Pyro-cumulonimbus clouds have developed to altitudes over 16km in East #Gippsland this afternoon. These fire-induced storms can spread fires through lightning, lofting of embers and generation of severe wind outflows #VicWeather #VicFires pic.twitter.com/gZN6sC7meU
— Bureau of Meteorology, Victoria (@BOM_Vic) December 30, 2019
Temperatures near bushfires zones can easily climb into hundreds of degrees Celsius, creating lethal perimeters around the fire that are so hot they kill anyone who is nearby long before the flames reach them.
Because of this, Victoria’s authorities urged residents to flee to the ocean as a “last-resort option.”
The historic bushfires devastating vast regions of Australia have been raging since September, laying waste to wildlife and private property alike. However, the unprecedented firestorms have only grown in the face of strong winds and a brutal heatwave that has threatened major population centers like Sydney and Melbourne.
Australia is burning.
The city of Mallacoota is completely surrounded by flame and 4,000 people have been forced to flee and seek shelter on the beach.
We need to act on climate change. This cannot be our new normal.
— Joshua Potash (@JoshuaPotash) December 31, 2019
On Monday, roughly 100,000 people in suburban Melbourne were urged to flee as the bushfire crisis rapidly closed in on the region, killing a volunteer firefighter and pushing the death-toll to 11.
City officials in Sydney still plan to hold a New Year’s Eve fireworks show despite the city being enveloped in toxic haze from the bushfires. Meanwhile, similar shows in Canberra and other regional towns have been canceled.
The Australian government headed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison has belatedly acknowledged the role of climate change in the bushfire crisis. However, Morrison’s government has also come under withering criticism for ruling out any further action to reduce emissions while continuing to pledge his support to the lucrative coal-mining industry. The government has been accused of obstructing global summits on climate change and skirting its obligations under the 2015 Paris accord.