More than 30,000 tourists in Australia who refused to evacuate an area east of Melbourne amid raging bushfires are now ‘trapped’ after locals warned earlier that staying would be ‘suicide’.
Hundreds of blazes are burning across Australia, which is experiencing a devastating summer bushfire season fuelled by a prolonged drought and climate change.
More than 30,000 people were told to evacuate Victoria state’s popular East Gippsland region Sunday amid fears soaring temperatures and gusting winds would stoke three large blazes, cutting off the last major road still open.
Emergencies chief Andrew Crisp said residents and holidaymakers still in the area faced being stranded as it was now ‘too late to leave’, with his agency warning it was ‘not possible’ to provide aid to all visitors in the area.
The Country Fire Service’s Brenton Eden said it would be a ‘very dangerous’ day for people in the state, with lightning already sparking a number of blazes.
‘Winds are gusting and unfortunately this is a dry lightning front that is going to move rapidly across South Australia,’ he told national broadcaster ABC.
Conditions are also expected to deteriorate over the next two days in worst-hit New South Wales, where 100 fires were burning Monday morning including more than 40 uncontained.
On Sunday, local retailer Richard Darby warned local retailers and tourists choosing to ignore the warnings ‘could be suicide’.
‘It’s going to be a very bad day tomorrow, they are telling everyone to get out while they can,’ Mr Darby told The Herald Sun.
East Gippsland Mayor John White said bushland in the region was bone dry after three years of drought.
‘Hopefully people heed the messages. You can rebuild homes, sheds and fences but life is irreplaceable,’ he said.
But many are taking little notice of the warnings.
Managers at holiday parks within the East Gippsland region, particularly at the Lakes Entrance, said most of their customers were opting to stay and had taken a relaxed approach.
‘We know that some people have left, others are staying,’ Iain Podd, who remains at a holiday park on the edge of the fire zone, told The Australian.
‘The receptionist here has told us that the direction of the wind means we won’t be affected. But of course we will move on if the situation changes.’
Michael Smits, who manages the Big 4 Whiters Holiday Village at Lakes Entrance, said just six of the 67 groups staying there had evacuated.
‘Many people are saying that they’re going to hang about town, go to a cafe, perhaps go to the beach or wander up and down The Esplanade. There’s certainly no panic,’ he said.
Others said they have chosen to stay put because a mass evacuation would cause chaos on the roads.
‘Thirty, forty thousand people onto the Princess Highway at once. That’s just chaos – an accident waiting to happen. Emergency services couldn’t keep up – and neither could the road,’ one holidaymaker told Seven News.
Meanwhile, other tourists said they were sent ‘mixed signals’ after receiving texts urging them to leave immediately, but later being told by motel staff they were safe.
One woman who shared the confusion to Twitter was encouraged to evacuate and said she was given a three-night refund by the motel management.
‘You won’t be able to sue the motel for the bad advice if you’re dead,’ one person wrote in response to her questioning whether she should leave.
In Victoria, emergency services cannot force people to leave their homes or residences.
This bushfire season has already taken nine leaves and destroyed more than 1,000 properties along much of the east coast of Australia.
The blazes have shown no sign of slowing down.
Temperatures across Victoria on Monday are predicted to soar past 40C, which combined with hot, dry winds could fuel the fire and push it further toward at-risk communities.
Three significant fires are still burning within East Gippsland – near Bruthen, Buchan and Bonang – but authorities predict each of these could spread by morning.
Bureau of Meteorology Kevin Parkyn said a wind change in East Gippsland at about midnight is ‘very problematic when it comes to fires and the landscape’.
‘It’s a very serious life-threatening situation. Make no mistake about it,’ he said.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews posted a Tweet urging tourists to leave.
‘If you are in East Gippsland you should leave today while it’s safe to do so,’ Mr Andrews posted.
‘Residents should activate their fire plan and consider staying with friends and family outside the area. If you are visiting, you should leave today. Please DO NOT travel to the area.’
The combination of the hot, dry windy conditions coupled with the wind change across the state on Monday will fuel the nasty fire conditions.
More than 70 helicopters and planes will be working on Monday if conditions allow.
People in Goongerah and Martins Creek have also been told to evacuate as a bushfire burning easterly towards their communities was still not under control on Sunday.
A watch and act warning is in place for Goongerah, Martins Creek, Nurran, Sardine Creek and Errinundra, which states ‘leaving now is the safest option’ before conditions change.
A total fire ban is in place for the entire state of Victoria on Monday.
The extreme weather conditions forced Falls Festival in Lorne to cancel the remainder of the acts.
About 9,000 festivalgoers were sent home as the region braces for severe weather, including winds up to 100km/h and storms.
In a statement on Sunday morning, festival organisers Secret Sounds said conditions posed a risk to health and safety.
‘It is with a heavy heart we have had to cancel the remaining days of The Falls Festival in Lorne due to the predicted extreme weather conditions forecast for Monday December 30th in the Otways and surrounding region, creating a risk to health and safety due to potential fires, smoke, severe winds and tree hazards.
‘The decision has not been made lightly, our patron and staff safety is our priority,’ the statement said.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who was in Sydney announcing compensation for NSW volunteers on the fire grounds, said other states were also on his mind.
‘We are seeing a real difficult situation emerging in Victoria where we know of the weather conditions particularly changing over the next few days,’ he said on Sunday.
‘I want to assure Australians outside New South Wales … our attention is equally there and ensuring the coordinated effort across states and territories is being put in place.’
SOURCE: Daily Mail, Brittany Chain and Joe Middleton