There are significant fears for 17 people who are missing after massive bushfires in Victoria, Australia, German news agency, dpa, quoted the state's premier as saying on Thursday.
While state premier Daniel Andrews said it was possible some of those unaccounted for could still be safe, he made clear that authorities were extremely concerned about their welfare, in comments reported by the Australian Associated Press.
Meanwhile, an Australian navy ship arrived at the coastal town of Mallacoota in Victoria on Thursday, which has been cut off since New Years Eve, to rescue thousands of people trapped by fires.
The town has been cut off by fires since Tuesday and 4,000 people fled to the town's beach to escape the flames.
The ship, HMAS Choules, is carrying much needed food, water and medical supplies and could evacuate up to 1000 people at a time, a defence spokesman said.
The town of around 1,000 residents is a popular holiday spot, which attracts thousands of visitors in summer. The navy planned to start evacuating 800 people by ship from Mallacoota in the afternoon, authorities said.
Tourists and all non-residents were told to get out of fire zones in Victoria and neighbouring New South Wales as an extreme heatwave is expected to hit and worsen bushfire threats over the weekend.
The fire service in New South Wales declared a tourist leave zone, stretching 240 kilometres south of the holiday resort town of Batemans Bay to the border with Victoria.
The Bureau of Meteorology, BOM, said a heatwave with strong winds will roll over South Australia Thursday before reaching south-east Australia on Saturday.
Rogers said strong westerly winds coming with the heatwave are expected to cause the megafires in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, the capital of New South Wales, to flare up and be blown towards communities on the edge of the city.
Meanwhile, the smoke from the fires blanketed the nation's capital Canberra on Thursday with some people forced to wear masks even working inside buildings.
The BOM said the smoke level in Canberra currently makes it the most polluted major city in the world. On Wednesday, the air quality in Canberra was 20 times the level deemed hazardous.
Fires have raged across south-eastern Australia since October. More than 5.36 million hectares across the country has been scorched and more than 1,400 homes destroyed.
The national death toll has risen to at least 17 people, according to the Australian Associated Press, with dozens still missing.
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