A third person was confirmed dead on Wednesday in devastating bushfires that engulfed Australia’s southeast coast this week and a fourth was missing and feared dead, as navy ships rushed to provide supplies and assist with evacuations.
Twelve people have now lost their lives in fire-related deaths across Australia since blazes broke out a few months ago, including three volunteer firefighters, after a three-year drought in large parts of the nation created tinder-dry conditions.
Fanned by soaring temperatures, columns of fire and smoke blackened entire towns on Monday and Tuesday, forcing thousands of residents and holidaymakers to seek shelter on beaches. Many stood in shallow water to escape the flames.
Bushfires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres) and new blazes are sparked almost daily by extremely hot and windy conditions and, most recently, dry lightning strikes created by the fires themselves.
Cooler conditions on Wednesday gave the country a moment to count the cost of the fires, although there were still more than 100 blazes in New South Wales (NSW) state alone and thousands of firefighters on the ground.
The body of a man was found in a burnt car early on Wednesday on the south coast of New South Wales after emergency workers began reaching the most damaged areas, and police said the death toll will rise.
“Sadly, we can report today that police have confirmed a further three deaths as a result of the fires on the South Coast,” NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys told reporters in Sydney.
“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.”
NSW police did not identify the missing man but said he was 72 years old and authorities have been unable to reach his home.
Police said early assessments have found nearly 200 homes have been destroyed, though they cautioned it was an early estimate.
Large-scale livestock and animal casualties are also expected across Australia’s east coast, though Mogo Zoo – home to Australia’s largest collection of primates, along with zebras, white rhinos, lions, tigers and giraffes – was saved.
The wildlife park was threatened by an out-of-control bushfire, though zoo keepers and firefighters managed to save all 200 animals.
In Victoria state, four people remain missing, state Premier Daniel Andrews said, after a massive blaze ripped through Gippsland – a rural region about 500 km (310 miles) east of Melbourne.