1 Jan 2020

Australia's NSW bushfires: Seven deaths confirmed

6:34 pm on 1 January 2020

The Rural Fire Service has confirmed seven people have died in bushfires that swept NSW's South Coast as people shop in the dark for supplies and tourists try to get home before conditions take a turn for the worse.

Firefighters struggling against strong winds and flying embers in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on 31 December.

Firefighters struggling against strong winds and flying embers in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on 31 December. Photo: Saeed Khan / AFP

The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) today confirmed that three more bodies had been found after the earlier deaths of four people.

Yesterday, the bodies of a father and son were found in Cobargo - it is believed they died while trying to defend their property.

The body of a man was found in a burnt-out car on a road off the Princes Highway at Yatte Yattah near Lake Conjola.

Volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul, 28, died after his truck flipped in the Green Valley blaze in Jingellic, 70 kilometres east of Albury near the NSW-Victoria border.

NSW Deputy Police Commissioner Gary Worboys today said three more bodies were found at Lake Conjola.

Firefighters hose down the area as they battle against bushfires around the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on December 31, 2019.

Firefighters hose down the area as they battle against bushfires around the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on December 31, 2019. Photo: AFP

"Sadly, we can report today that police have confirmed a further three deaths as a result of the fires on the South Coast," Deputy Commissioner Worboys said.

"Police are also at Lake Conjola now, where a house has been destroyed by fire and the occupant of that home is still unaccounted for. This goes on the back of the four deaths reported yesterday."

A 70-year-old man was found dead outside a home 6km west of Lake Conjola.

The body of a man was found in a vehicle in Sussex Inlet this morning while a body was found outside a home at Coolagolite.

Meanwhile, a 72-year-old man remains unaccounted for at Belowra, about 50km north west of Cobargo, and a 70-year-old woman remains unaccounted for at Conjola Park.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said he expected the death toll to rise this afternoon.

"The preliminary advice is that we will, sadly, see the number of people, the number of lives lost, that will climb this afternoon," Commissioner Fitzsimmons said.

The RFS also confirmed at least 176 homes had been destroyed.

Some of the worst loses were suffered in Conjola Park, where 89 homes were destroyed, and Malua Bay, where 40 homes were lost.

Deputy RFS Commissioner Rob Rogers said that total was "by no means the end".

Read more on the Australian bushfires:

'You just got through all these emotions'

Lake Conjola resident Karen Lissa said she thought she was going to die when a bushfire swept through her street.

"You just go through all these emotions," she said.

"You think 'I'm gonna die'.

"We're lucky. Just really grateful that we're alive and we've got our house.

"I've never seen this. So many homes lost, this is devastating."

Some residents were not as lucky, as towns ravaged by bushfires were left "unrecognisable" and thousands of NSW South Coast residents and travellers remained anxious as authorities began a stocktake of yesterday's devastation.

Helen Dwyer said there was hardly any time to react as her retirement home was destroyed.

"We didn't have time to pack anything. We probably weren't as well prepared as we should have been … it was just so ferocious and quick," she said.

"We sat down at the lake most of the day, and came back up in the evening and can't believe how many, in our street, all the houses that've gone."

Karen Freer from Canberra remained stranded in Batehaven, just outside Batemans Bay.

Her phone battery had died and like many across the coastal towns, she was anxious about what would happen next.

"There's no internet, we cannot access the RFS website and I know everyone is doing their absolute best, but we have no information," Ms Freer said.

"We don't know where the fire is … we just don't know the current situation."

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.

Reports this morning from the region were sparse following a communications blackout yesterday 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.

Three-hundred 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 today, but there was a plan to refill it with diesel from local fishing boats to prevent food spoiling.

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.

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."

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."

Water concerns

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 yesterday, 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.

Bottled water is available at the local supermarket for free and water and other supplies will be brought into the town today 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."

Yesterday 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.


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