PERTH, Australia (AP) — Wildfires burning across Australia’s two most-populous states Tuesday trapped residents of a seaside town in apocalyptic conditions, destroyed many properties and caused at least two deaths.
In the southeastern town of Mallacoota, around 4,000 residents fled toward the waterside as winds pushed an emergency-level wildfire toward their homes. The town was shrouded in darkness from the smoke before turning an unnerving shade of bright red.
Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews said there were plans to evacuate the trapped people by sea. There were grave fears for four people missing. “We can’t confirm their whereabouts,” Andrews told reporters on Tuesday.
He has requested assistance from 70 firefighters from the United States and Canada.
Victoria Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp confirmed “significant” property losses across the region.
Fire conditions worsened in Victoria and New South Wales states after oppressive heat Monday mixed with strong winds and lightning strikes.
New South Wales Police confirmed Tuesday that two men, believed to be father and son, died in a house in the wildfire-ravaged southeast town of Cobargo, where another man is missing.
“They were obviously trying to do their best with the fire as it came through in the early hours of the morning,” New South Wales Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys said. “The other person that we are trying to get to, we think that person was trying to defend their property in the early hours of the morning.”
The two confirmed deaths raise the toll to at least 12 from Australia’s wildfires, which have razed more than 1,000 homes in the past few months.
A firefighter died Monday when extreme winds flipped his truck. Samuel McPaul, 28, was the third volunteer firefighter in New South Wales to die in the past two weeks. He was an expectant father.
The state’s Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said a “significant” number of properties have been destroyed.
Some communities have canceled New Year’s fireworks celebrations, but Sydney’s popular display on its iconic harbor will go ahead. The city was granted an exemption to a fireworks ban that is in place there and elsewhere to prevent new wildfires.
Hot temperatures were expected, as was the thick smoke that has shrouded views of the harbor and Sydney Opera House in recent weeks.
The popular celebrations are expected to attract around a million spectators and generate $91 million for the state’s economy.