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Thousands forced to take refuge on Australian beach as deadly wildfires close in

While Sydney held its fireworks display on New Year's Eve on Dec. 31, thousands of beachgoers were stuck on the coast of the country due to raging wildfires. (Video: Reuters)

Australia tasked navy ships and military aircraft Wednesday to bring water, food and gas to towns cut off by wildfires ravaging the country’s southeast coast.

Thousands of people in the southeastern seaside town of Mallacoota were forced to seek refuge on the beach and even boats in the water early Tuesday as deadly blazes closed in around the popular holiday destination to create an apocalyptic-looking scene of huddled evacuees under dark-red skies.

As wildfires grip Australia in one of its worst fire seasons in memory, the threat is especially intense this week in southeastern states such as Victoria and New South Wales, where most of the country’s population lives. More than a hundred wildfires burning an area roughly the size of Belgium had killed at least three people in New South Wales; in Victoria, four are missing. At least 12 people have died during Australia’s fire season thus far.

A 63-year-old man and his 29-year-old son in New South Wales died while trying to save their home Tuesday, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. reported, and a volunteer firefighter died Monday. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service confirmed the three deaths Wednesday morning local time and expressed “grave concerns” for a missing fourth person.

Australia is experiencing “absolutely” the worst bush fire season on record, New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We’ve seen extraordinary fire behavior overnight.”

“What we really need is meaningful rain and we haven’t got anything in the forecast at the moment that says we’re going to get drought-breaking or fire-quenching rainfall,” he said.

Victoria Emergency Commissioner Andrew Crisp said Wednesday that the Australian Defence Force was moving naval assets to Mallacoota on a supply mission that would last two weeks and helicopters would also fly in more firefighters since roads were inaccessible, the Associated Press reported.

Fires this week have forced road closures, caused cellphone and power outages, and destroyed homes — and show few signs of relenting. The language in the flurry of alerts from local fire services is dire: “It is too late to leave. Seek shelter in a solid structure to protect yourself. Be aware of the danger of falling trees and branches,” read the bullet points of a Wednesday morning alert from the New South Wales Rural Fire Service warning about the Clyde Mountain area.

The department shared a video of firefighters in New South Wales driving through thick smoke as embers hit the windshield and flames surround the truck. “Fire’s on the road already,” one firefighter is heard saying. Another is heard directing his comrades to put blankets up against the truck’s windows as flames lick the side of the vehicle.

The fire department of New South Wales posted video Dec. 31 showing one of their trucks enveloped by a raging fire. (Video: Reuters)

This year has been Australia’s driest on record, creating tinderbox conditions in which bush fires can easily spark and spread. Much of the country has had less than 40 percent of its normal rainfall in the past six months.

Australia is in the middle of its summer season, with much of the country enduring a record heat wave for December. Intense heat and dry conditions in the forecast are expected to escalate the fire threat.

In the capital, Canberra, the typical high temperature during December is 81.5 degrees (27.5 Celsius); over the weekend, temperatures hit 100 degrees (37.7 Celsius). The heat this spring and summer has shattered all-time records in Australia. The country had its hottest day on record Dec. 18, when the national average maximum temperature hit 107.4 degrees (41.9 Celsius), beating the record, which was set the day before. Forecasters have warned of still more heat and dryness, saying conditions are likely to worsen this weekend.

According to a Bureau of Meteorology report on the 2019 bush fires, spring brought the highest fire weather danger on record in Australia, with “record high values observed in areas of all states and territories.”

Ongoing scientific assessments indicate that the hot, dry conditions are being worsened by climate change.

Australia has warmed by just over 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) since 1910, with most of the warming occurring since 1950. The Bureau of Meteorology has noted an uptick in the frequency of extreme heat events and severity of drought conditions in this period.

The fires have also draped a large swath of the country in a thick, dangerously noxious haze. As the calendar flipped to 2020, the town of Tuggeranong, just south of Canberra, saw near-record amounts of air pollution — more than 15 times the level deemed hazardous.

In Mallacoota, which sits halfway between Melbourne and Sydney, an estimated 4,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes and vacation rentals as the fires ripped into town.

“My niece’s photo of Mallacoota; she’s found refuge on a houseboat, thank goodness. I hope everyone has a safe place today,” Vicki Ward, a parliament member from Victoria, tweeted Monday.

Devastation from the fires can be seen from space. A weather satellite sweeping over the Tasman Sea toward New Zealand captured massive plumes of smoke rising from the bush fires in southeastern Australia.

In some areas, the towering smoke created its own weather, generating what are known as pyrocumulonimbus clouds, fueled by intense heating. The billowing clouds sometimes produce lightning and rain and, given atmospheric spin, fire tornadoes. These are violent whirlwinds composed of flames, which can unleash devastating winds.

The volunteer firefighter who was killed in New South Wales died when a fire tornado flipped his truck near the New South Wales-Victoria border.

This rare, terrifying atmospheric phenomenon was also witnessed in California’s Carr Fire in 2018, where it unleashed winds over 143 mph and tore trees from the ground.

The extreme fire conditions in New South Wales were brought on by a volatile mix of abnormally warm, dry conditions and gusty winds.

“Strong winds are adding to the volatility & causing some fires to behave erratically,” tweeted the Bureau of Meteorology office serving New South Wales.

On land, Australia’s rising heat is ‘apocalyptic.’ In the ocean, it’s worse.

The conditions are too dangerous for outdoor fires or firework displays, which threatened New Year’s celebrations nationwide. On Sunday, officials announced that Sydney would be exempted from the nationwide fireworks ban so that the city could put on its famous fireworks display to ring in the new year.

Andrew Freedman and Reis Thebault contributed to this report.

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