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Australia Scrambles Military as Wildfire Death Toll Climbs

Edward Johnson

(Bloomberg) -- Australia scrambled military helicopters and ships on Wednesday to help thousands of people cut off by wildfires raging across the southeast as the death toll from the national crisis continued to climb.

Some 4,000 holiday-makers and locals remain stranded in the remote township of Mallacoota in Victoria state after a bushfire tore through the community on Tuesday, forcing people to shelter on the beach or escape by boats.

The terrifying scenes were repeated in dozens of small towns in rural, forested parts of the state and across the border in New South Wales, as the infernos turned the sky a blood red and rained down embers and ash on locals and tourists during the peak summer holiday season.

“The fire was ferocious, it was angry,” Lorena Granados, who battled in vain to save her home in the small town of Mogo, told the ABC. “The fire was just throwing the water back on us. It was like a demon attacking us.”

Seven people, including a volunteer firefighter, have been killed this week in New South Wales, police said, taking the confirmed national death toll since the blazes broke out several weeks ago to at least 16.

A man was found dead Wednesday in Victoria’s East Gippsland region, though police could not confirm whether it was fire-related. With several people unaccounted for, more than 150 fires still burning in the two states and extreme temperatures and strong winds forecast for Saturday, authorities fear the death toll will rise.

The crisis has triggered an emotive debate about the impact of global warming in Australia, the world’s driest-inhabited continent. It has also fueled criticism of Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s conservative government, which strongly advocates for the nation’s massive coal-export industry and rejects criticism it is not doing enough to curb emissions.

There appears no end in sight to the bushfire emergency, which is impacting all of Australia’s six states amid a prolonged drought gripping much of the country.

“We have got three months of hot weather to come. We have a dynamic and a dangerous fire situation across the state,” Victoria’s Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp told reporters. “We know we have a long way to go with this.”

Firefighters were taking advantage of cooler weather Wednesday to try to contain blazes, re-open roads and reach isolated communities left without power and communications.

Helicopters will airlift supplies to cut-off townships and deploy fresh firefighting crews, while boats are delivering food and water to some coastal areas.

Residents returned to villages and towns across the southeast Wednesday to find scores of homes destroyed -- the New South Wales fire service put the tally of razed properties this week at 176, and about 1,000 since the crisis began. Social media was awash with images of buildings reduced to charred rubble and burnt-out cars. Main roads were clogged as people seized the opportunity to move to safer areas, and in the town of Eden police had to direct traffic as long lines of cars waited to get fuel. In Batemans Bay, people queued around the block, waiting to enter a crowded supermarket to buy provisions.

The emergency has placed scrutiny on Australia’s capacity to combat blazes that have spread over massive areas, pushing fire services largely manned by volunteers to their limits.

Almost 4 million hectares of forest and bushland -- an area almost twice the size of Wales -- have been destroyed in New South Wales alone.

Fires are so intense they are generating their own weather systems, with dry thunderstorms sparking new blazes. They have already pumped out more than half of the country’s annual carbon dioxide emissions, and smoke has drifted some 2,000 kilometers to New Zealand, turning the sky orange early Wednesday in the South Island city of Dunedin.

Residents of the Australian capital, Canberra, woke to a new year with air quality more than 23 times the level deemed hazardous as bushfire smoke enveloped the city in a toxic haze.

(Updates with people queueing for fuel, groceries)

To contact the reporter on this story: Edward Johnson in Sydney at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Edward Johnson at ejohnson28@bloomberg.net, Thuy Ong

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