Tourists given less than 48 hours to evacuate fire-ravaged Australian towns

Thousands of tourists have been given less than 48 hours to evacuate fire-ravaged coastal communities as Australia braces for a weekend heatwave expected to fan deadly bushfires.

Catastrophic blazes ripped through swathes of the continent’s south-east on New Year’s Eve, claimed lives of at least 8 people and stranding holidaymakers as seaside towns were ringed by flames.

The New South Wales (NSW) Rural Fire Service on Thursday morning declared a “tourist leave zone” stretching about 200 kilometres (125 miles) from the popular holiday spot of Bateman’s Bay along the usually picturesque south-east coast to neighbouring Victoria state, where people are also being urged to evacuate fire-threatened areas to avoid further loss of life.

The last deaths raise the toll to at least 18 in one of Australia’s most devastating bushfire seasons yet.

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance called it the “largest evacuation of people out of the region ever”, with a long queue of cars now stretching along the highway toward Sydney as thousands flee the area.

NSW Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said firefighters were unable to extinguish or even control the raging blazes.

“The message is we’ve got so much fire in that area, we have no capacity to contain these fires,” he told ABC.

“We just need to make sure that people are not in front of them.”

John Steele, 73, who lives outside the south coast town of Merimbula, told AFP some residents were “panicking” amid the warnings to evacuate.

“There’s so much misinformation on Facebook and on the web,” he said.

Steele said the region had been “chaotic” in recent days as fresh produce and fuel supplies ran low, but he and his wife were staying put for now.

“We’re happy to see every man and his dog leave town,” he said. “We are cautious, we have our bags packed.”

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