Thousands of tourists and residents in an Australian seaside town hunkered down in public buildings or waded into water at the seafront on Tuesday as wailing emergency sirens warned of a looming, fierce firefront.
With the coastal town of Mallacoota ringed by wildfires and the main road in and out of town cut off, residents and holidaymakers were forced to head to the local gymnasium or waterfront as embers swept through the town.
Four million hectares destroyed
Australia has been battling huge bushfires, mostly across its east coast, for several weeks. The blazes have destroyed more than 4 million hectares.
Authorities said on Monday they feared three people had been killed in New South Wales while four others were missing in Victoria after powerful blazes in both states over the past 24 hours.
Nine killed in wildfires
Scores of homes and properties are thought to have been destroyed, and power cut to several towns that are still in the fires' path.
Wildfires have killed nine people since October, including three volunteer firefighters.
'Please be safe'
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said significant firefighting efforts would continue for weeks "and I fear, in the months to come."
"To those fighting these fires; please be safe, and continue to pull together in this difficult time," Morrison said. "Your country is behind you every step of the way."
Social media posts by some of the thousands of people still in Mallacoota showed blood-red, smoke-filled skies. Authorities said three firefighting teams had been deployed there in an attempt to beat back the fire's advance.
One photograph of the town's beachfront, which is hugely popular during the current summer holiday season, showed people laying shoulder-to-shoulder on the sand, some wearing gas masks.
Victoria state fire commissioner Andrew Crisp said 4,000 people were sheltering on the beach.
Authorities said the main firefront was moving up the coast and warned people in its path to seek shelter close to the beach.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said fire crews described the scene of the overturned firefighter's truck as "truly horrific, a fire tornado".
"Under the hot, dry windy conditions we're expecting today there's every chance we could see new fires start as a result of some of that activity," Fitzsimmons said.
New Year's Eve celebrations to go on
Bushfires were also burning on the outskirts of Sydney, cloaking the harbour city in smoke ahead of planned New Year's Eve celebrations, which authorities said would go ahead despite some public calls for them to be cancelled in solidarity with fire-hit areas in New South Wales.
Sparked by lightning strikes
Authorities confirmed on Tuesday that many of the recent blazes have been sparked by lightning strikes. Much of the eastern part of the continent has suffered under years of drought that has created tinder-dry conditions susceptible to flare-ups.