Mass evacuation underway in parts of Australia as bushfire crisis escalates

Australian authorities have made a final plea for people to flee bushfire-affected areas in three states before the onset of extreme conditions so dangerous that firefighters may be unable to defend entire towns.

On Friday, authorities in New South Wales urged people still in a 14,000 square kilometre area of the state’s south coast, and in other high risk areas in the Snowy Valley, to leave overnight.

In Victoria – where there are grave fears for 28 people still missing in the East Gippsland region – authorities have sent 250,000 text messages to people in affected shires and urged them to evacuate.

Both NSW and Victoria have enacted emergency measures that give firefighting authorities the power to forcibly relocate people if necessary.

In South Australia, warnings have been issued for two fires on Kangaroo Island, which firefighters have said they cannot prevent from spreading. SA country fire service chief officer Mark Jones said he would be “astonished” if homes were not already lost.

Forecasters have predicted temperatures in the mid-40Cs on Saturday for some parts of south-east Australia. The fire danger will be increased by strong winds.

On Friday, the military continued evacuations of the Victorian inlet of Mallacoota, where about 4,000 people were trapped by a fire that reached the edge of the township and blocked their exit. Most were being taken on a 17-hour voyage by ship to the HMAS Cerberus naval base at Western Port.

The defence forces have also been dropping supplies to communities isolated by active firegrounds.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, toured an evacuation centre in Victoria on Friday as he faced heavy criticism for his response to the escalating and unprecedented bushfire crisis.

On Thursday night, Morrison was given a hostile reception in the NSW town of Cobargo, where he was heckled by people who had lost their homes.

On Friday, the former NSW fire commissioner Greg Mullins compared the prime minister’s response to the bushfires to Donald Trump’s response to mass shootings.

“People are angry, and … if people want to direct that at me, that is up to them,” Morrison said. “It’s not something that will distract me. It is something that I will empathise with. It is something that I understand. It’s not something for me to take personally.

“This is not about any one individual, not me or anyone else. We all have to a job do.”

NSW authorities have warned some towns, including the apple-growing hub of Batlow, may be “undefendable” in the extreme conditions and that in those circumstances firefighters may allow properties to burn rather than risk attempting to contain the fire.

“We are unfortunately very likely to lose homes tomorrow but we will be very happy and call it a success if there are no lives lost,” the NSW rural fire service deputy commissioner, Rob Rogers, said.

“That is a single focus tomorrow and we need the community to have the focus as well.”

The NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, held a press conference on Friday afternoon to tell people on the south coast and in other affected areas that by Saturday morning it would be too late to leave. (Courtesy The Guardian)

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