SYDNEY, Australia — Already besieged by one of the worst wildfire seasons in Australian history, evacuees and those staying put on Friday braced for conditions to grow even more dire.
Across Australia’s southeast, supermarket shelves emptied, gas stations closed and roads became clogged with traffic as skies turned a hellish red or a smoke-choked white. Firefighters were overwhelmed by more than 100 raging blazes and families were forced to make perilous stay-or-go decisions.
The toll so far includes 18 deaths, more than 1,000 homes destroyed and thousands of animals killed. On Friday, experts and government officials offered a grim warning: The upcoming weekend is likely to be the most dangerous yet.
Predictions for Saturday
Early Friday, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service drastically expanded its estimate of the amount of land at risk from spreading fires, including “ember attacks,” in which burning wood fragments are carried by wind. The weekend is expected to bring high winds and temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or about 38 Celsius.
New South Wales, the state that includes Sydney, declared a state of emergency in its southeastern region on Thursday. Residents and tourists across a broad swath of the southeast were advised to flee.
Evacuation Warnings Continue
Across three states, the official word was clear: Evacuate the areas at risk of more fires this weekend.
There was still a window, said Gladys Berejiklian, the premier of New South Wales State, for people to get out of towns along the south coast.
“Please do not stay in the area unless you absolutely have to,” she said at a briefing on Friday. “When you have so many fires still releasing embers, we know that the wind conditions can make it another terrible day.”
Rob Rogers, the deputy fire commissioner for New South Wales, was more blunt. He said there would be no help for anyone who ignored the warnings to leave.
“We’ve been very honest about the risk, but if people choose to stay, that’s on them,” he said. “Do not expect there to be a fire truck when you ring.”
He also warned people who decided to stay not to change their minds at the last minute and get on the road. Such moves have been fatal, he said. “Cars are not safe places to be.”
In South Australia, fire chief Mark Jones said he was disappointed that many people had not heeded official warnings to leave Kangaroo Island, off the coast of the state, where an uncontrolled blaze swept through about 35,000 acres of national park with no end in sight.
“It may be too late for them,” he said on Friday. “We urge them to seek safety.”
Rescue by sea
The Royal Australian Navy began rescuing people trapped in Mallacoota, a seaside town in Victoria, after fires cut off its land-based escape routes. The Department of Defense said on Friday afternoon that 57 people had departed on one of its ships, and about 900 would leave throughout the day.
About 4,000 people, including about 3,000 tourists, were trapped in the town, according to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Some people would be unable to board the ships because it required using ropes to get on board, ABC reported. Those who made it onto a ship will take a 17-hour voyage to get to Melbourne.
Assessing the damage
More than 1,000 homes have been destroyed by the wildfires in Australia — and the toll has the potential to get worse.
Mick and Sue Kelly spent much of the last 20 years building the home of their dreams on a patch of forested land in Surf Beach, six miles south of Batemans Bay. “He’s not a bricklayer, but he laid every brick himself,” Ms. Kelly said of her husband.
They would sleep in one room with their two children while the rest of the house was under construction. He would go to his job and save up money and then take a break to work on the house.
On Christmas Day, the couple, now in their 60s, hosted their children and grandchildren as they had done every year, even as they knew fires were burning trees 15 miles from their home.
Six days later, as the year ended, the house caught fire. The whole structure — the gabled roofs, the Edwardian columns and the inner courtyard garden were decimated. Only a sandstone skeleton remained.
“The wind changed on New Year’s Eve to a southerly and brought all the embers with it, they covered the whole house and we ran for our lives,” said Mr. Kelly.
‘It feels like it’s not real’
People staying behind on the south coast were preparing for the worst, after days of dwindling resources.
Clarinda Campbell, 37, said she and her two children had been without power and had barely slept since Tuesday, when fires swept through the area. They fled to a property owned by her parents in Surf Beach, where phone reception was out in all but a few spots. Water and food sources were running low, with no way to store them, and there was no garbage disposal service. Radio was the main source of information, and shops were accepting only cash.
But the community rallied together, she said. On Friday, a neighbor brought fresh bread, which is now a luxury.
“It has been very touching,” Ms. Campbell said. “In the crisis you see the best and the worst.”
On Friday, the family fueled up their cars in case a getaway was necessary.
Without the use of phones, they had to make contingency plans. Ms. Campbell said she was nervously waiting for Saturday, when her husband, who had stayed behind in the town of Broulee to defend their home, was supposed to run to a nearby hilltop with a sliver of cellular reception, to let her know if he was safe.
With the possibility of fires blocking escape routes, she was trying to reach her husband on Friday to persuade him to leave.
“It feels like it’s not real,” she said. “I’ve gone to sleep every night and woken up every morning hoping that it was just a bad dream.”
Bernard Kreet, a caterer in Catalina, said he was hosting two families who had been evacuated from other towns, thinking that Catalina would probably avoid the worst. While his partner had left for the next town north, Mr. Kreet opted to stay behind.
“It’s so hard to get out of town, it’s chaos down here,” he said.
Catalina has run out of rice and fuel is low, he said. Power was out from Tuesday to Thursday.
When fire swept close to the area on Tuesday, he huddled with about 300 others at a Catalina golf club, waiting to hear if it would come their way.
“The feeling in that room, of 300 people just frightened — it was heavy,” he said. “There will be so many people with PTSD after this. So many people are just so anxious.”
Isabella Kwai reported from Sydney, and Daniel Victor and Jamie Tarabay from Hong Kong.
Orignially published in NYT.