PERTH, Australia (AP) — Wildfires burning across Australia's two most populous states on Tuesday trapped residents of a seaside town in apocalyptic conditions, destroyed many properties and caused at least two fatalities.
About 5 million hectares (12.35 million acres) of land have burned nationwide during the wildfire crisis, with 12 people confirmed dead and more than 1,000 homes destroyed.
The annual Australian fire season, which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer, started early after an unusually warm and dry winter. Record-breaking heat and windy conditions triggered wildfires in New South Wales and Queensland states in September.
In the southeastern town of Mallacoota in Victoria state, 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 also were grave fears for four people missing. "We can't confirm their whereabouts," Andrews told reporters on Tuesday.
Andrews 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 after oppressive heat Monday mixed with strong winds and lightning.
Police in New South Wales said Tuesday that two men, believed to be father and son, died in a house in the wildfire-ravaged southeast town of Cobargo, while there are fears for another man 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.”
On Monday, a firefighter was killed when extreme winds flipped his truck. Samuel McPaul, 28, was the third volunteer firefighter in New South Wales to have died 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 had been destroyed.
Some communities canceled New Year’s fireworks celebrations, but Sydney’s popular display over its iconic harbor front was to go ahead. The city was granted an exemption to a total fireworks ban that is in place there and elsewhere to prevent new wildfires.
Sydney's popular celebrations were expected to attract around a million spectators and generate 130 million Australian dollars ($91 million) for New South Wales' economy.