'Panic in everybody's eyes': Bushfire warning triggers holiday traffic chaos

Roads across the NSW south coast, where visitors and tourists have been told to leave, have seen huge queues of traffic as motorists tried to access petrol on Thursday morning.

Many are simply trying to get out while some locals are preparing to hunker down for the bushfire threat as weather conditions are set to deteriorate on Friday and Saturday.

“There was panic in everybody’s eyes,” Sydney woman Natalia Esdaile-Watts, who was holidaying in Ulladulla with her husband, four children and their dog, told Yahoo News Australia.

As people tried to get out on Thursday, “it was a really sombre mood,” she said. “Everybody was freaking out.”

Her and the family wanted to leave the night before, however were unable to as the roads were closed.

“We slept in our clothes overnight ready to go any minute and my husband woke us up at 4am when the roads opened,” she said.

Cars on a bridge line up to leave Batemans Bay on Thursday amid bushfires.
Cars line up to leave the town of Batemans Bay on Thursday. Source: Getty

A lack of fuel supplies and major power outages have hindered the ability for road users to buy petrol from stations dotted along the coast.

Ms Esdaile-Watts and her family were lucky to have enough petrol to make it out.

Before power came back on Wednesday, they were relying on a rare bag of ice to keep their food cool.

“People were freaking out about all the food that was going,” she said.

“My husband went to the supermarket and said there was no eggs, no bread, no food.

“The line to Woolworths was three blocks long.”

NSW authorities have labelled the area from Batemans Bay down to the Victorian border as a no tourist zone with holidaymakers and visitors told to get out if they can.

Ms Esdaile-Watts and her husband volunteer with State Emergency Services and said it was heartbreaking driving through the burnt-out landscape wishing they could do more to help those stuck in the town they were leaving behind.

“I said to my husband it really pains me just driving out... It was with a really heavy heart.”

Some people had taken to Facebook asking for a lift out of town, she said.

“It was like armageddon, like the end of the world.”

Recounting the experience to family once back home in Sydney on Thursday left her in tears and overcome with emotion, she told Yahoo News Australia.

Photos of Natalia Esdaile-Watts took on her drive back to Sydney showing burnt-out bush and smokey haze.
Natalia Esdaile-Watts took these photos on the five-and-a-half hour drive back to Sydney. It would normally take less than three hours. Source: Supplied
As a volunteer with SES, Natalia has recently travelled to fire affected areas to help out. Source: Facebook/supplied
As a volunteer with SES, Natalia has recently travelled to fire affected areas to help out. Source: Facebook/supplied

Drivers told to remain patient

Marg Prendergast, who heads transport coordination at Transport for NSW, said drivers would just need to remain patient as roads remained clogged on Thursday.

“We'll get you out. The traffic is moving even though the queues are long,” she told ABC early on Thursday afternoon.

For those in the upper south coast region, if you can get to the Princes Highway to head northbound, you are encouraged to do that, she urged.

“We are saying there are really long queues but, you know, you've got to be patient because we need people to leave if they possibly can,” Ms Prendergast said.

“If you're further down the south coast in areas like Bega, you can use the Snowy Mountains Highway via Cooma and the Monroe Highway to Canberra to leave that Far South Coast and, as I said, we just opened a little section from Tilba to Brogo, which gives access for people from Narooma to get out.”

The Princes Highway closed again on Thursday afternoon north of Milton.

In a statement at about 4pm Thursday, NSW police reminded those leaving the South Coast and Snowy Mountains areas to be patient as road closures and traffic diversions continue to be periodically being put in place due to the fire threat.

“With the assistance of Transport for NSW, we have been running controlled access to various arterial roads to allow people to leave impacted areas, but sections of the Princes Highway are being closed periodically for safety reasons,” Deputy Commissioner Worboys said.

“The road networks are currently fully loaded in many areas, so please be patient and remain calm.”

He also said people need to have plenty of water and snacks as lengthy delays are still expected. Those still on the roads are urged to keep up with the latest updates at Live Traffic NSW.

Photos shared to NSW south coast community Facebook groups showed standstill traffic on Thursday morning.
Photos shared to community notice boards online showed standstill traffic on Thursday morning. Source: Facebook/Supplied

Photos posted online show huge traffic queues leaving towns along the coast.

In Ulladulla, one person reported moving 50 metres in about 25 minutes while stuck on the main road.

“Getting out of Ulladulla this morning was crazy. Have never seen that much traffic in my life,” another person wrote on Twitter at 11:20am (AEST) on Thursday.

Petrol being rationed as drivers cure for hours

In the major town of Batemans Bay, 50 kilometres south of Ulladulla, fuel tankers were given a police escort to resupply the area, local MP Andrew Constance said.

Further south in the town of Moruya, huge queues of motorists formed on Thursday morning after power returned to petrol stations.

“A lot of them have been trying to go for the last couple of days, but haven't been able to get petrol,” ABC reporter Melissa Clarke said on Thursday while reporting from the town.

“Power has been out here in Moruya for the last few days... and so when the power came on last night that meant suddenly that the petrol pumps could work and those petrol stations that did still have fuel left could start distributing it,” she explained.

“So we saw a bit of a rush to servos last night. That's continued again this morning. There's been really long queues.”

Council staff were called in to manage the traffic queues and prevent intersections from becoming blocked.

Stations in Bega and Tathra had reportedly run out of fuel on Thursday morning while Eden was running low.

In Bermagui, fuel was being rationed on Thursday as tension were rising, according to those on the ground.

Meanwhile long queues remain outside supermarkets across the south coast as people try to get limited supplies. Staff are managing queues with some stores reportedly only letting in 20 customers at a time.

People were warned not to panic buying on Wednesday and only purchase what they needed.

Holidaymakers who evacuated Bermagui, on the far south coast, on Wednesday told Yahoo News Australia they saw supermarket shelves that were all but bare.

Meanwhile one petrol station on the south coast has drawn the ire of some shoppers for selling a case of 24 water bottles for $48.

Across the southern border into Victoria, military personnel arrived to rescue people by sea from Mallacoota where they have been trapped by bushfires blazing across the Gippsland region.

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