'Sky went orange and it got very scary' - Irish dad trapped by fires

Bushfires rage across Victoria

Aoife Walsh

An Irishman living in Australia has told of his "intense" experience after being trapped with his family in the deadly bushfires on the east coast.

Diarmuid O'Connor, from Ennis in Co Clare, lives in Sydney but was holidaying with family in Bateman's Bay when a warning over the fires broke out on New Year's Eve morning.

Eight people have been killed by wildfires in New South Wales (NWS) and Victoria since Monday and 18 are missing, officials said. Tens of thousands of holidaymakers fled seaside towns on Australia's east coast as bushfires approached, and military ships and helicopters began rescuing thousands more trapped by the blazes.


A pedestrian wears a mask as smoke shrouds the Australian capital of Canberra, Australia

Fuelled by searing temperatures and high winds, more than 200 fires are burning, threatening several towns.

The NSW government declared a state of emergency yesterday, giving authorities the power to forcibly evacuate people and take control of services.

Speaking on Today With Sean O'Rourke on RTE Radio One yesterday, Mr O'Connor said: "We're staying in a campsite, so we got evacuated to the beach. We stayed on the beach for maybe two hours while the fires burned around us.

"We thought we were OK but then we saw a lot of water bombers coming into the town, dropping loads of water.

"There was a lot of helicopters dropping buckets into the sea. It was a very intense.

"We eventually got back to the campsite, but we had another big scare then. The sky went completely orange, there was no visibility, smoke everywhere. It got very scary.

A bushfire rages in Bairnsdale in Victoria state, Australia

''It's just been mayhem for two days. There's been no power - no communications. Internet down, phone down. People didn't know what the situation was, or what roads were open to leave the town."

Mr O'Connor spoke while he was stuck on the Princes Highway with his two daughters after an evacuation order was issued. He said his family were stuck in a town called Milton after having travelled 60km in 12 hours.

"The road has been closed now for eight hours. Essentially, we're sitting in the world's biggest car park. Apparently the road is open ahead but they're only letting 100 cars go at a time."

Meanwhile, a business owner described it as "hell on earth".

"It is the worst anybody's ever seen," Michelle Roberts said by telephone from the Croajingolong Cafe she owns in Mallacoota, a town where 4,000 residents and visitors have been stranded on the beach since Monday night.

Ms Roberts hoped to get her 18-year-old daughter onto HMAS Choules, a naval ship, which arrived yesterday in order to escape the fires and thick smoke engulfing the town.


But the ship, which can carry up to 1,000, may need to make two or three voyages.

Elsewhere, long queues formed outside supermarkets and petrol stations as residents and tourists emptied shelves of staples such as bread and milk.

More than 50,000 people were without power and some towns had no drinking water.

"Everyone's on edge," said Shane Flanagan, a resident of Batemans Bay.

Authorities urged a mass exodus from several towns on the southeast coast, an area popular with tourists during the summer, warning that extreme heat forecast for the weekend will further stoke the fires.

"The priority today is fighting fires and evacuating, getting people to safety," Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

"There are parts of both Victoria and New South Wales which have been completely devastated, with a loss of power and communications."

Temperatures are forecast to soar above 40C along the south coast tomorrow, bringing the prospect of renewed firefronts to add to 200 current blazes.

"It is going to be a very dangerous day. It's going to be a very difficult day," NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.

Forced to defend his government's limited action on climate change, Mr Morrison blamed a three-year drought and lack of hazard reduction for the unprecedented extent and duration of this year's bushfires.

Bushfires so far this season have razed more than 4 million hectares of bushland and destroyed more than 1,000 homes, including 381 homes destroyed on the south coast this week.