Residents and holidaymakers by their thousands have escaped the flames, only to face another trial … what next?
- Thousands remain stranded in New South Wales and Victoria
- Shortages of fuel, food and water have been reported, as well as communication and power outages
- People face days before roads can be reopened
The bushfire crisis engulfing New South Wales and Victoria has filled evacuation zones up and down the coast.
For many, the start of the new year has brought fatigue and frustration.
The major road link in and out of the Bega region on the far NSW South Coast has reopened, despite smouldering fields and bush adjacent to the road.
Traffic congestion has been reported along the Snowy Mountains Highway at Brown Mountain and for those that can get out, many face a full day’s travel to return home.
Follow our live blog for updates on bushfires and the evacuations.
A chunk of the New South Wales coast between Nowra and Batemans Bay remained inaccessible on New Year’s Day morning.
Another part of the coast further south between Moruya and Narooma was only accessible via the Princes Highway through Tathra.
That has left thousands stranded in evacuation centres facing an uncertain start to 2020.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the availability of power, communications and fuel were concerns for isolated communities.
“We’re focusing very much on [opening] the northern road back towards Sydney through the Princes Highway and the route is open further south,” he said.
“But even people opting for the route further south, the real challenge there is availability of fuel and given the power outages trying to get power restored to petrol stations and fuel is a challenge.”
Mike Tregallas from Mallacoota in Victoria — which remained completely cut off — said it had been a very hard 24 hours for the township.
“People are going around checking their homes and finding their animals and horses, checking what’s missing,” he said.
He feared it could be many days before he could drive anywhere, with 23 kilometres of road through fire-affected bush connecting the town to the highway.
“If there are major trees down along that road, it will take crews some time.”
Holidaymakers face delays in coastal communities such as Ulladulla as the bushfire crisis continues. (ABC News: Joh McDiarmid)
Fuel, food, phones and accommodation
Low availability of food and fuel was already reported in affected communities on New Year’s Eve, and some families were forced to sleep in their cars.
Kerry from Mirador phoned into ABC South East saying it had been “panic stations” in the town of Tura Beach.
“A car queue of 50 waiting to get petrol and people in Woolworths clearing the shelves … apocalyptic,” she said.
Craig Scott from Woolworths Ulladulla said supplies of milk and bread were running low. (ABC News: Joh McDiarmid)
Reports this morning from the region were sparse following a communications blackout on Tuesday between Nowra and Moruya — a large portion of the New South Wales coastline.
But it is clear many are also without power, while others are relying on generators.
In Ulladulla, Woolworths store manager Craig Scott said the power was down and they were relying on a generator they had only ordered two months ago.
300 people were waiting in a queue at lunchtime on Wednesday.
“The power’s out in town, but we decided to open the store just for necessities, so people can get nappies, baby food, all that sort of stuff.”
He said the generator was due to run out of fuel on Wednesday, but there was a plan to refill it with diesel from local fishing boats to prevent food spoiling.
More bushfire coverage:
There was enough food to sustain the town for the next day, but people were waiting for food for around two hours and he said supplies were low of milk and bread.
“As soon as they open the highway we’ll have trucks coming back down.”
Local business Three Friends Fishing was making saltwater ice and was donating it to those in the town.
Those stranded in Ulladulla lined up for ice to keep supplies cool. (ABC News: Joh McDiarmid)
ABC reporter Joh McDiarmid said her family went to Ulladulla to get supplies but got stuck there as the fires came in quickly, and they haven’t been able to return to their holiday home.
She said the only phone network in operation was Telstra, so lots people were unable to make calls.
“We’ve had no power since midday yesterday,” she said.
“We’re in the car driving around just to charge my husband’s phone battery but we also need to conserve petrol because the petrol stations aren’t open.”
Petrol supplies were running out in coastal communities. (ABC News: Joh McDiarmid)
She said she did not know how long it would be until they could get out, and most hotels were booked out.
“We’re hearing the power won’t come back on until tomorrow night at least,” she said.
“People are just wandering the streets of Ulladulla, there’s no power.”
Erin Riley has set up a website connecting people in affected communities who have space to offer with those who need beds or room for animals.
Already, around 60 people have offered accommodation.
“We’ve had an awesome response from people offering, but not much from people who need somewhere to stay yet,” she said.
“We’re just hoping to have enough places registered that if and when people need somewhere for them or their animals, we can try to meet some of their needs.”
Many don’t have access to mobile phone coverage, prompting queues at phone boxes. (ABC News: Joh McDiarmid)
Water supplies in towns in both Victoria and New South Wales have been affected by the fires.
Steve McKenzie, managing director of East Gippsland Water, told ABC Gippsland the water supply for Mallacoota could not be disinfected Tuesday, prompting a boil water notice that would remain for at least another day until water could be tested.
Mr McKenzie is pleading with people to minimise demand.
“We are noticing, en masse, a large surge of demand where people are probably turning on sprinklers and filling water tanks. The system isn’t designed to cope with that sort of demand. Use the water wisely so we can maintain supply,” he said.
One sandwich shop in Ulladulla is offering free food to support those stranded. (ABC News: Joh McDiarmid)
Bottled water is available at the local supermarket for free and water and other supplies will be brought into the town by sea.
“We may be able to get supplies in by road, but that’s something we’re working on,” Mr McKenzie said.
“We are working on a fill point in the middle of town with safe drinking water where people can fill containers that should be available later today.”
On Tuesday the Bega Valley Shire Council issued a boil water notice for Quaama, Cobargo, Bermagui, Beauty Point, Fairhaven, Wallaga Lake, Wallaga Lake Heights, Wallaga Lake Koori Village and Akolele after disinfection infrastructure was lost.
“All water for drinking, food preparation, the cleaning of teeth and ice-making needs to be boiled before use,” it stated.
The Shoalhaven City Council warned that power outages had caused sewerage overflow to impact rivers and beaches in the area between Sussex Inlet and Lake Tabourie.
Thousands on the road heading south to Tathra, to then try to get to safety in Cooma. Traffic is heavy, but flowing. #NSWfires @abcnews
Restoring essential services
John Preston from AusNet Services told ABC Radio Melbourne just over 7,000 households were without power within its distribution area, mostly in Gippsland. This includes 5,000 households in the Bairnsdale area, and about 1,500 households in the north around Corryong.
Mr Preston could not give an estimate of when the power would be back on.
“We completely understand how inconvenient and difficult it is to be without power. We’re trying to get crews in there just as quickly as possible to get people up and running,” he said.
Mr Preston said they were working to get generators started to restore power, but conditions were proving difficult, particularly in Mallacoota.
“We have a helicopter that is trying to get in to land a crew there to activate that [generator], and that will certainly help if they’re able to get there,” he said.
“Stay safe and prepare for the fact that while we will get our crews in there as quickly as possible, this outage may go on for a little bit more until that area is safe.”
President of Chamber Commerce in Eden, Peter Whiter, said the town is struggling, and that if people holidaying in the area have a safe home to go to, now is the time to leave.
“The message we would like to give the visitors who are visiting with us is that perhaps now is the time to go home,” he said.
“We just want them to come back when the Sapphire Coast is a bit more sapphire.”