Australians are facing a terrifying start to the new year, as bushfires rip through popular tourist spots on the country’s southeast coast, forcing thousands of people to take refuge on nearby beaches.
Idyllic coastal towns packed with tourists planning to ring in 2020 were cast in apocalyptic red on Tuesday, as smoke blotted out the sun.
In the town of Mallacoota, which lies on the easternmost edge of the state of Victoria and is a well-known family camping spot, around 4,000 people fled to beaches, authorities said.
“There’s no way in or out,” Mallacoota resident Jason Selmes told CNN after evacuating his home.
Another tourist, Ida Dempsey and her family from Melbourne, fled to their boat which was moored about 200 meters (656 feet) from the shore.
Dozens of fires continue to burn out of control in the states of Victoria and New South Wales (NSW).
Thousands more people were forced to evacuate their homes along the NSW coast on Tuesday, which is dotted with small beach towns popular with holiday-makers over the Christmas season.
In Batemans Bay, NSW, hundreds of families fled their homes Tuesday under an eerie orange sky.
“It was like we were in hell,” vacationer Zoe Simmons told CNN.
“We were all covered in ash.”
Meanwhile, across Victoria, over 200,000 hectares have already been burnt in the fires, according to the state’s Emergency Management Commissioner, Andrew Crisp.
He warned: “It is still a dynamic and dangerous situation.”
There is, however, a glimmer of hope.
Weather conditions are expected to improve in the next 24 hours — meaning cooler temperatures and lower winds — but will worsen again by the end of the week, bringing dangerous fire conditions, according to CNN meteorologists.
By Tuesday evening, some people were even returning to their homes, according to Victoria’s Country Fire Authority Chief, Steve Warrington, though he added that “a number of houses” are believed to be destroyed or damaged.
Victoria Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said some communities in the state remain isolated, and food packs and other supplies are being organized for transport.
Emergency crews are still working to determine the extent of damage by air, but suggest significant property loss across the East Gippsland region, he said.