'Absolutely horrific': Thousands of people trapped on beach as towns turn black

·News Editor

Thousands of frantic residents slept on the beach last night in a desperate plan to save themselves from bushfires directly threatening a Victorian coastal holiday town.

On Tuesday morning, thousands of people sought refuge on the beach in Mallacoota, a small town in the East Gippsland, Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told ABC News.

But a wind change later in the day meant the worst of the blazes had passed.

The change also helped firefighters battling a blaze in the northeast Victoria-NSW border at Corryong.

This image was posted online purporting to show the wharf in Mallacoota shrouded in a red haze about 10:30am on Tuesday.
This image was posted online purporting to show the wharf in Mallacoota about 10:30am on Tuesday. Source: Twitter/bluesfestblues

"The wind change has gone through and it is now bypassed that town," Country Fire Authority chief officer Steve Warrington said of Mallacoota.

"I understand there was a public cheer down at the jetty when that was announced."

But he confirmed there were property losses on the outskirts of the townships, despite the good news.

He added there was still a "high degree of anxiety" felt by the Corryong community and the town remained surrounded by fire.

The Australian Defence Force has been called in to help respond to fires raging in East Gippsland where four people are missing.

Mr Crisp said up to 40 military personnel will help assess the fire damage from Wednesday.

Authorities are also considering other ways the military could provide support, such as fixed-wing planes and helicopters.

In a video posted to Facebook, locals took shelter in a boat on the water. Source: Facebook/Cubin'
In a video posted to Facebook, locals took shelter in a boat on the water. Source: Facebook/Cubin'

Requests for 70 firefighters have been made to Canada and the United States.

The state government has also announced a bushfire response taskforce it vows will avoid "red tape" in dealing with fallout from the blazes.

The developments come after lightning sparked more than a dozen new blazes in Victoria's alpine region on Tuesday.

As of about 6pm (local time), more than 20 bushfires were burning across Victoria, with flames ripping through more than 200,000 hectares in East Gippsland.

Mallacoota local Don Ashby told the ABC he expected damage to homes and didn’t think his own would survive.

"I've been in bushfires before but not like this. My house is not saveable, it's right on the edge of town, right where the fire's coming and there's just no way."

Residents shared photos like this taken about 9am (local time) on Tuesday. Source: Facebook
Residents shared photos like this taken about 9am (local time) on Tuesday. Source: Facebook

‘Utterly surreal’ conditions as towns go dark

Residents shared eerie photos of their view of the fire from the beach, showing the area in almost complete darkness at 9am on Tuesday.

“It’s absolutely pitch black dark, sirens are going off and we can see flashing lights everywhere. We have no idea how far the fire is from the town as the local radio station has gone down,” one woman wrote to a local community group.

Another said there was “burning embers” falling onto the beach, and someone else later added: “Fire is dropping embers. Fire is on the edge of town. There is only time to take shelter.”

An eerie black cloud blanketed the small Victorian town on Tuesday morning. Source: Facebook
An eerie black cloud blanketed the small Victorian town on Tuesday morning. Source: Facebook

“It's absolutely horrific at the moment. It's not the fireworks we expected on New Year's Eve. We have got blustering winds. We are surrounded by red sky, choking dust, and choking smoke, and embers falling on the town,” Mallacoota resident Francesca Winterson told ABC News on Tuesday morning.

“Probably 40 minutes ago, the emergency services sounded their sirens all around town, telling people that's it, get into your safe place, and stay inside until we get a clear warning to come out.

“It is a Holocaust basically.”

Coastal towns along the New South Wales south coast turned nearly pitch black due to the conditions.

Incredible images shared on social media show residents in towns from Mallacoota to Bermagui in near pitch blackness.

Seven emergency warnings, the highest alert, remain in place across East Gippsland and there is another in place for a fire straddling the northeast Victoria-NSW border at Corryong/Walwa.

About 30,000 holidaymakers in Victoria's East Gippsland region were told to get out as fire posed serious threat to people in Lakes Entrance at the weekend.

More than 200 new fires rage in Victoria

Addressing the media about 11am (local time) on Tuesday, Mr Crisp said Monday was a difficult day for fire crews as conditions worsened.

“Yesterday (Monday) it was forecast to be a challenging and dangerous day for Victoria in terms of fires. And that's exactly what transpired. What we saw across the state was more than 200 new fires yesterday, a further 60 new fires that started from midnight last night.

“Whether you look from Bairnsdale right through to Mallacoota, we've had impacted across the whole of East Gippsland. As you would imagine, it is very early days yet and we don't have specific details about property losses but we do have significant property losses across all of East Gippsland.

“At this stage there are significant losses.”

Mr Crisp urged people in Victoria to keep monitoring alerts, particularly if they plan on using the roads.

Seven emergency warning for the area have been issued with residents told it's too late to leave. Source: VicEmergency
Seven emergency warning for the area have been issued with residents told it's too late to leave. Source: VicEmergency

“I know some people will drive to move around that particular part of the state, but I ask you - I encourage you - to just pay attention in relation to those traffic management points.”

Milder weather is expected in East Gippsland in the next few days, but Mr Crisp said people cannot relax.

"Everyone need to remain vigilant," he said.

The Bureau of Meteorology says the temperature spiked at 49C at Mallacoota about 8am.

The bureau believes that fire-affected air, or fire itself, moved past the weather station at the time, with the mercury dropping to 24C just 10 minutes later.

The blazes have cut power to homes, with AusNet Services reporting 5700 properties without electricity in East Gippsland, with another 1800 in northeast Victoria.

The energy company expects it could take days to restore power.

Four people unaccounted for

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said there is currently four people unaccounted for in fire affected areas of the state.

“There are four people unaccounted for. We can't account for them so we can't give you further information,” he said.

“We do have real fears for their safety. They've been in active fire environments and we can't account for them.

“Similarly, and I know it's frustrating, there have been a very significant loss of property, very significant loss of stock. We can't give you an accurate picture of that just yet.”

With AAP

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