The sky has turned an apocalyptic shade of red, and thousands of people have evacuated onto the beach in the Australian town of Mallacoota as a destructive wildfire approaches.
Pictures of the red sky and falling embers are trickling onto social media as thousands of residents and tourists in the eastern Victoria town, about 400 miles south of Sydney, seek refuge from the oncoming blaze and prepare to escape into the Tasman Sea if the fire comes closer.
Social media users reported wearing goggles in order to see and covering their skin with towels to protect themselves from falling ash and embers. The sound of wailing emergency sirens added a shrill note to a constant roar of the fire.
Victoria state Fire Commissioner Andrew Crisp said 4,000 people were sheltering on the beach.
Bed-and-breakfast owner David Geoffrey told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) what he was witnessing on Mallacoota Beach.
“It was blowing out to a gale for a point and then... it’s pitch black. And then the sky went red. We thought it was a fire front about to run over the top of us,” he said.
“They wanted us to get into the water, get against that wall. It’s got oysters and stuff, not the greatest thing to do, but it will save you from radiant heat. It’s a barrier.
“So we were ready to jump in. And everyone was all along the edge, ready to go, and, of course, when, you know, when that sky went red, it looked like what we’ve been looking at when we saw the fire coming.”
Geoffrey added that evacuees could hear gas cylinders exploding, “which means it’s people’s homes being destroyed.”
Community radio presenter Francesca Winterson was sheltering in a building on the town’s main street, she told ABC. She said loudspeaker alerts were issued throughout the town intermittently, between warning sirens, telling people to take refuge immediately.
“It’s absolutely horrific at the moment,” Winterson told ABC. “We have got blustering winds, we are surrounded by red sky, choking dust, choking smoke, and embers are falling on the town, and we are completely isolated.”
Another resident reported escaping out to sea on a boat with his family and pets, saying that it was “chaos,” as seen in the footage below.
About 100 fires are burning across Australia in multiple states, with as many as 14 emergency warnings in place for Victoria. Fires are also threatening homes and infrastructure in South Australia and Tasmania.
A New South Wales volunteer firefighter who died in a “cyclonic wind” fire event on Monday has been identified as 28-year-old Sam McPaul.
The state’s Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons described McPaul as “a much loved and respected local firefighter” who leaves behind a wife who is pregnant with their first child.
“He leaves behind, tragically, a beautiful wife, Megan, who is pregnant with their first child, that’s due on 4 May,” Fitzsimmons said at a news conference Tuesday.
Fitzsimmons said there were preliminary reports of three more potential fatalities in small towns in New South Wales.