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Thousands flee Australia’s coastal towns as raging wildfires close in

Capital Weather Gang's Andrew Freedman discusses what caused the fires taking over Australia — and what's to come. (Video: The Washington Post)

SANCTUARY POINT, Australia — An Australian navy troop carrier on Friday began evacuating some 900 people trapped in a remote region of Victoria state by advancing wildfires that have consumed an area almost the size of West Virginia.

The situation in Mallacoota — a beach town popular with families over the holiday season — is so dire that small amphibious military vehicles began ferrying men, women and children about a mile offshore Friday morning to a navy ship designed to carry 300 soldiers and 23 tanks.

Since the fires started in October, 18 people have been killed, eight of them this week. At least 28 are missing, and more than 1,000 homes and other buildings have been destroyed.

For the first time, the government of Victoria declared a state of disaster in nine districts, including the state's picturesque Alpine region. The declaration is a legal procedure that gives officials the power to forcibly evacuate people.

"If you can leave, you must leave," the Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, said Friday morning. "We cannot guarantee your safety."

‘Houses were exploding’: In Australia’s fire horror, heartbreak and relief

More than 200 fires are burning in the continent's southeast, and firefighters fear the worst may be yet to come. Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit and high winds are forecast for Saturday, conditions that could whip up existing blazes and trigger new ones up to seven miles from the main front. U.S. and Canadian firefighters have flown in and are helping to battle the flames.

"You can feel it in your eyes. You can feel it in your lungs, and that's made people even more desperate to get out," Elias Clure, a journalist in the town, said on the Australian Broadcasting Corp. network.

"It is hell on Earth," Michelle Roberts, owner of the Croajingolong Cafe, told the Reuters news agency.

Farther north, in New South Wales state, the main coastal highway was cut off when a fire that had been under control flared up between the regional centers of Nowra and Ulladulla.

Families sought refuge as bush fires closed in on Dec. 31 in the coastal village of Rosedale in New South Wales, Australia. (Video: Madeleine Kelly via Storyful)

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service asked tourists vacationing in a 150-mile strip on the state's South Coast to leave Thursday morning. Lines of cars up to a mile long could be seen at gas stations as drivers waited to ­refuel and get out.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison asked people to be patient as they navigated congested roads. Criticized last week for vacationing in Hawaii while the fires burned, Morrison was heckled Thursday when he visited Cobargo, a town in southern New South Wales where most of the main street was wiped out by fire Monday.

"How come we only had four trucks to defend our town?" one woman said. "Because our town doesn't have a lot of money but we have hearts of gold, prime minister."

A member of Morrison's security detail stood between a man and the prime minister to shield Morrison from the abuse — a remarkable physical demonstration of the anger toward a political leader who has prided himself on being in touch with regular Australians.

Later, a prominent local politician from Morrison's Liberal Party — who had protected his own home with a garden hose — joined in the criticism.

"The locals probably gave him the welcome he probably deserves," Andrew Constance said. "The nation wants you to open up the checkbook and help people rebuild their lives."

Earlier, Morrison had emphasized that the primary responsibility for fighting fires lies with state governments, while taking credit for making military resources available.

"It's important as we work through those evacuations that people continue to remain patient and remain calm and to follow instructions," Morrison said at a news conference Thursday. "What we cannot have, in these situations, is governments stepping over the top of each other in a national disaster like this."

One problem facing those who have lost homes or fled with few possessions is Australia's almost ubiquitous use of contactless payments, also known as payWave, where money is transferred by holding a credit or debit card close to a payment terminal. With even landlines down, and banks closed and ATMs empty, the cashless economy in some areas seized up, according to fire brigade officials.

In the town of Sanctuary Point, about three hours south of Sydney and a few miles from a major blaze, about 400 anxious residents attended a briefing given Thursday by the regional fire commander at the local country club, which is also a designated evacuation center.

With conditions deteriorating, Superintendent Mark Williams said residents should leave soon if they were not physically capable of defending their homes from the encroaching flames.

"What we have got is a massive event in front of us," he said in the briefing, which was attended by representatives of the Australian Red Cross and state police. "If you're not prepared at the moment, you are running out of time."

For residents who planned to stay and needed medical assistance, a local doctor said she would open her clinic to the community all weekend and provide free advice over the phone.

"That's what makes Australia great," Williams responded, triggering applause in the room.

A dry continent, Australia has a history of wildfires. But the current crisis and the earlier-than-usual start to the summer fire season have triggered angst over what many perceive to be a tepid response by the Australian government to the threat of climate change. In particular, the government has faced criticism for appearing reluctant to move the country away from coal, one of the nation's top export earners.

December was among the two hottest months on record in Australia, and 2019 was the hottest and driest year on record. Climate scientists have tied the severity of the wildfire season overall, along with the extraordinary heat waves this fall and winter, to climate change.

Morrison, however, said no individual fire can be attributed to climate change.

But as Australia's population grows, the loss of life and property to fires will increase, said Andrew Sullivan, who leads a fire research team at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, a government agency.

"It's a natural part of the Australian environment," he said in a telephone interview. "When conditions are bad, there is not a lot anyone can do about it."

While Australia burns, neighboring Indonesia is facing extreme weather of a different sort.

Australia’s prime minister visited families devastated by the wildfires. It did not go well.

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

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

Severe flooding and landslides caused by torrential rain have killed 30 people, submerged scores of neighborhoods and displaced thousands in the capital, Jakarta.

Australia has its hottest day for a second straight day as areas face ‘catastrophic’ fire conditions

Some flee, others restock before Australia’s wildfires grow

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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