Thousands of people fleeing bushfires in a resort-filled coastal area of eastern Australia created massive traffic jams Thursday after officials declared it a “tourist leave zone.”
The premier of New South Wales ordered evacuations in a 5,400-square-mile area from Nowra, about 100 miles south of Sydney, to the state’s southern border with Victoria, a popular tourist destination known as South Coast.
The southeastern Australian state, already coping with dozens of raging bushfires, posted the evacuation notice as the prospect of worsening weather conditions this weekend threatened to exacerbate the situation. Since Wednesday, fires have destroyed 382 homes in the South Coast, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said the order would come into effect Friday at 9 a.m. She urged all visitors to evacuate before Saturday, when the Australian Bureau of Meteorology predicted there will be temperatures in the 100’s with strong winds.
“We’re undertaking the largest relocation of people out of the region in history,” NSW Transportation Minister Andrew Constance told the Sydney Morning Herald. “We need people to listen, respond and get out.”
On Thursday evening, however, reports indicated people attempting to leave the affected areas had become stranded due to gridlocked roads and were faced with delays of up to 10 hours as escape routes were blocked. Some said they were becoming anxious with little indication of when traffic conditions would improve.
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, however, urged calm at a Thursday press conference.
“I would continue to ask people to be patient,” he said. “I know you can have kids in the car and there is anxiety and there is stress and the traffic is not moving quickly but the best thing to do — the best thing that helps those out there volunteering, out there trying to restore some order to these situations is for everyone to be patient.
To the south in the state of Victoria, meanwhile, the Australian Navy was called in to help evacuate the town of Mallacoota, which was decimated by fires on New Year’s Eve.
Across the country, 17 people have been confirmed dead from the bushfires since October, while at least 17 others remained unaccounted for.
NSW Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said conditions could be the same or worse as they were on New Year’s Eve when at least two people were killed. Since Monday, at least seven people have died due to the fires.
“Crews are working hard to get some containment before Saturday but we are concerned about that fire because of its potential run into far western Sydney,” Rogers said.
Australia National University has decided to close several campuses until Tuesday due to hazardous smoke conditions.
“There is no immediate threat to the campus and this is a precautionary measure to ensure the health and wellbeing of our community,” ANU acting Vice-Chancellor Mike Calford said in a statement.
On Thursday, some 2,000 firefighters were battling more than 100 bush and grass blazes throughout the state with less than half contained.
A funeral also was held Thursday for Geoffrey Keaton, one of two NSW RFS volunteer firefighters killed Dec. 19 when a tree fell on their fire truck as they were responding to a blaze.