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Thousands of Australians flee to beaches as wildfires rage

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By Daniella Silva and Associated Press  with NBC News World News
Image: Gary Hinton stands in the rubble after fires devastated the town of
Gary Hinton stands in the rubble after fires devastated the town of Cobargo, Australia, on Dec. 31.   -   Copyright  Sean Davey

Thousands of Australians fled their homes on New Year's Eve, taking refuge on beaches from raging wildfires that turned the sky bright red, destroyed houses and and businesses, and caused deaths in the country's most populous states.

The devastating fires, fed by intense heat and winds, rampaged across Australia's southeastern states of New South Wales and Victoria heading into the new year, turning coastal towns into dangerous traps and forcing residents to the oceanside.

As of 3 a.m. local time on Jan. 1, there were 112 fires burning across New South Wales, with several large and dangerous fires continuing to burn on the southern coast, according to the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. More than 2,500 firefighters were combating the fires, according to the fire service.

Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews requested assistance from 70 firefighters from the U.S. and Canada, while Australia's military sent air and sea reinforcements, The Associated Press reported.

The remains of burnt buildings on the main street of Cobargo on Dec. 31.
The remains of burnt buildings on the main street of Cobargo on Dec. 31.Sean Davey
Children wear masks to protect them from smoke as they play at an evacuation site in Bega, New South Wales, on Dec. 31.
Children wear masks to protect them from smoke as they play at an evacuation site in Bega, New South Wales, on Dec. 31.Sean Davey

The massive blazes have already destroyed more than 10 million acres of bush and 1,000 homes after the devastating fire season began early this year in September. Record-breaking heat, windy conditions and ongoing drought have exacerbated the blazes this annual fire season — a combination that environmentalists say has been exacerbated by climate change.

In Mallacoota, in the state of Victoria, about 4,000 people swarmed to the beach to escape the fires, according to authorities. An image released to AFP/Getty Images showed people taking shelter offshore on a boat near Mallacoota, covering their mouths as they are surrounded by orange sky.

"The community right now is under threat, but they will, we will hold our line, and they will be saved and protected," Steve Warrington, chief officer at Victorian Country Fire Authority, said Tuesday.

People take shelter from bush fires in a boat just offshore of Mallacoota, New South Wales, on Dec. 31, 2019.
People take shelter from bush fires in a boat just offshore of Mallacoota, New South Wales, on Dec. 31, 2019.Courtesy of Ida Dempsey

Victoria State Premier Daniel Andrews said Tuesday four people remained unaccounted for.

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, the AP reported.

"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, according to the AP. "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."

Smoke and flames rise from burning trees near the town of Nowra in New South Wales on Dec. 31.
Smoke and flames rise from burning trees near the town of Nowra in New South Wales on Dec. 31.Saeed Khan
A firefighter battles a bush fire near the town of Sussex Inlet on Dec. 31.
A firefighter battles a bush fire near the town of Sussex Inlet on Dec. 31.Sam Mooy

Dramatic videocaptured the moment a fire crew's truck was overrun by a bushfire south of Nowra, a town south of Sydney. The truck is seen making its way through the raging fires as smoke and embers fill the air. Massive flames are then seen surrounding the truck from all sides. Fire and Rescue New South Wales, which released the video, said the crew was forced to shelter in their truck as the fire front passed through. The fire service confirmed in a follow up post on Twitter that the crew survived the incident.

On Monday, a volunteer firefighter died when his truck was overturned in a rare fire phenomenon known as a fire tornado, authorities said.

Cyclonic winds lifted the truck — which weighs between 10 and 13 tons — and "flipped it onto its roof, trapping the people inside" and killing firefighter Samuel McPaul, 28, in the incident, New South Wales Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said. Three others were also injured.

McPaul is survived by his wife, who is pregnant with their first child. He was due to become a father in May, officials said.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison expressed condolences to McPaul's family, calling his death "absolutely heartbreaking."

Fires approach a home in the outskirts of Bargo, near Sydney, on Dec. 21.
Fires approach a home in the outskirts of Bargo, near Sydney, on Dec. 21. David Gray
Gary Hinton stands in the rubble after fires devastated the town of Cobargo, Australia, on Dec. 31.
Gary Hinton stands in the rubble after fires devastated the town of Cobargo, Australia, on Dec. 31.Sean Davey

"The fires in New South Wales and Victoria are continuing to rage and we expect further difficult news out of both of those states," he said.

"I want to thank all of those out there fighting those fires, all of those out there supporting them in these difficult times," he added. "The conditions remain tough and for the rest of us it's a matter of just simply listening to the instructions, staying safe and being patient and doing what we need to do to put ourselves in a place of safety."