Death toll rises as Australian bushfires rage out of control, produce dangerous air quality

Eric Leister

Thousands of residents and vacationers in Australia were forced to quickly take refuge on a beach in Mallacoota, Victoria, on Tuesday as a large fire threatened the seaside town located about 500 km (310 miles) east of Melbourne.

Fire crews flanked the beach as the flames grew closer, and some people were able to flee the beach using local boats. Others hunkered down on their boats away from land, with little choice but to wait out the disastrous flames until additional help arrived.

Some of that help arrived on Wednesday, when the Australian Defense Force was mobilized to rescue those still stranded on the beach, according to the Herald News. The country's military sent naval ships and aircraft to the area to supply water, food and fuel to towns that have been cut off by the fires, the Associated Press reported.

From the more than 200 fires that have continued to burn out of the control across New South Wales and Victoria, at least 17 people have died, more than 175 homes have been destroyed and around 4,000 people were forced from the coastal town of Mallacoota were forced to flee to the beach shore when the blazes cornered their town.

The daytime sky glowed dark red and orange and then black as massive plumes of smoke and ash enshrouded the region.

In this Monday, Dec. 30, 2019 photo provided by State Government of Victoria, a helicopter tackles a wildfire in East Gippsland, Victoria state, Australia. Wildfires burning across Australia's two most-populous states trapped residents of a seaside town in apocalyptic conditions Tuesday, Dec. 31, and were feared to have destroyed many properties and caused fatalities. (State Government of Victoria via AP)

The Australian Navy and a group of military helicopters were sent to the area to supply aid and provide evacuations as roads to several coastal towns were cut off by fires.

Homes were reportedly destroyed and residents forced to flee as a fire approached the New South Wales town of Batemans Bay on Tuesday.

Batemans Bay resident Zoe Simmons described the scene as "apocalyptic" when smoke and flames turned the sky red.

Simmons said on Twitter she was at an evacuation center in town and at one point couldn't stand outside because ash was getting in her eyes.

In this image made from video, officials block the Princes Highway as wildfires approach in South Coast, New South Wales Australia, Tuesday, Dec. 31, 2019. (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Channel 9, Channel 7 via AP)

Despite some improvement to the weather this week, fire crews still have a major challenge to overcome.

Intense heat and gusty winds caused the fires to spread quickly across Victoria and New South Wales on Tuesday. In locations farther south, cooler air and less wind provided some aid to firefighters that struggled to get control over the recent surge in fires.

Two men were killed while trying to protect their home in New South Wales, and another remained missing, according to the Associated Press.

This Monday, Dec. 30, 2019 photo provided by State Government of Victoria shows wildfires in East Gippsland, Victoria state, Australia. (State Government of Victoria via AP)

A firefighter who was killed in New South Wales on Monday marked the third death in firefighting efforts since mid-December.

Several others remain missing across Victoria and New South Wales.

There is such a large amount of smoke it is producing pyrocumulus clouds which can be seen from NOAA Satellites.

The Australian flag flies above Parliament House as smoke shrouds the Australian capital of Canberra, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. Australia deployed military ships and aircraft to help communities ravaged by apocalyptic wildfires that destroyed homes and sent thousands of residents and holidaymakers fleeing to the shoreline. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)

The smoke created dangerous air quality in many locations across southeast Australia, including the capital city of Canberra.

The city reported its worst air quality in history on Wednesday when pollution levels reached 20 times above what is considered hazardous to health.

Since the start of the ongoing bushfire catastrophe, 17 lives have been lost, more than 1,000 homes destroyed and more than 5 million hectares (12.35 million acres) have been burned.

After some heat relief on Thursday, very hot air will return to Victoria and eastern New South Wales on Friday.

Strengthening winds and elevated temperatures will elevate the risk of new fires and make containing ongoing blazes more difficult from Friday into Saturday.

Another surge of cooler air will sweep across Victoria and southern and eastern New South Wales on Sunday, which will bring some relief.

Sunday and Monday may also mark the first widespread rainfall to the region in weeks. However, any lightning from thunderstorms will pose a risk to ignite additional fires.