Three dead, several missing while Australia counts the cost of devastating forest fires

SYDNEY: Australian authorities confirmed on Wednesday that a third person had died in devastating forest fires that ravaged the southeastern coastal region this week and said a fourth person was missing and feared death.

Encouraged by high temperatures, columns of fire and smoke blackened entire villages on Monday and Tuesday, forcing thousands of residents and tourists to seek refuge on the beaches. Many stood in shallow water to escape the flames.

In total, there have been 12 fire-related deaths in Australia since the fires broke out a few months ago, including three volunteer firefighters, after a three-year drought in much of the nation that created tinder conditions.

Huge forest fires have destroyed more than 4 million hectares (10 million acres), an area larger than Japan, and new fires are generated almost daily by extremely hot and windy conditions and, more recently, dry ray rays created by The fires themselves.

The coldest conditions on Wednesday gave the country a moment to calculate the cost of the fires, although there were still more than 100 fires in New south Wales (NSW) 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, according to the state's Rural Fire Service (RFS).

The death toll is likely to increase, said NSW RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

We still have serious concerns for (another person), he told reporters in Sydney.

There is limited access to the remote area to try to identify and confirm in one way or another the status of that person.

The NSW police did not identify the missing man, but said he was 72 years old and that the authorities have not been able to communicate with his house.

Several fires continue to burn in the area, making evaluation difficult, although local lawmaker Fiona Phillips said she estimates that up to 200 homes have been destroyed.

Animal casualties and large-scale cattle are also expected on the east coast of Australia, although the Mogo Zoo was saved, home to Australia's largest collection of primates, along with zebras, white rhinos, lions, tigers and giraffes.

The wildlife park was threatened by an uncontrolled forest fire, although zookeepers and firefighters managed to save the 200 animals.

In the state of Victoria, four people remain missing, state premier Daniel Andrews said after a massive fire swept through Gippsland, a rural region about 500 km (310 miles) east of Melbourne .

About 4,000 people in the city of Mallacoota in Victoria made their way to the coast after the main road was cut.

Mark Tregellas, a Mallacoota resident who spent the night on a boat ramp, said only a late change in wind direction saved lives.

The fire continued to grow and then the black began to descend. I couldn't see the hand in front of me on my face, and then it started to glow red and we knew the fire was approaching, Tregellas told Reuters.

The ashes began to fall from the air and then the embers began to fall. At that time, people began to bring their children and families to the water. Fortunately, the wind changed and the fire moved away.

With thousands of people still stranded, the Australian army has been recruited to provide supplies and help with evacuations in areas, many of which have run out of electricity for hours.

In Ulladulla, a small coastal town about 230 km south of Sydney, many residents and tourists rushed to get supplies, which led long lines out of the few shops that open on a holiday.

Black Hawk helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and naval ships have been deployed, along with military personnel.

New South Wales Prime Minister Gladys Berejiklian said authorities were working to reestablish communications with areas cut by fires, and warned that conditions will deteriorate again over the weekend.

On Saturday the weather conditions will be so bad, Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney.

The capital of Australia, Sydney, was covered with thick smoke, reaching approximately 20 times more dangerous levels, which prompted health warnings.

The smoke has also moved to New Zealand, where it has turned the daytime sky into orange throughout the South Island.