Australia fires: nine dead and hundreds of properties destroyed, with worse to come

Ben Smee, Calla Wahlquist and Helen Davidson
Photograph: Sean Davey/AFP via Getty Images

Nine people are confirmed dead, with four still missing, and more than 200 properties have been lost since Christmas Day in Australia’s catastrophic bushfires.

Smoke still hung thick over the south-east of the country on Wednesday evening, even as weather conditions offered a reprieve to take stock of the destruction.

On Wednesday afternoon, authorities in New South Wales and Victoria said another five people were confirmed dead, and another man presumed dead. They warned the death toll was likely to continue to rise.

Related: Malua Bay fire: survivors tell how 1,000 people lived through a night of flames on NSW beach

At Malua Bay, on the NSW south coast, survivors spoke of how 1,000 people spent the night on the beach in a bid to seek shelter from the flames. “Everyone was on the beach, just covered in ash and smoke,” Al Baxter, the former Wallaby, told Guardian Australia. “There was a strange calmness. People were as close to the water’s edge as they could [be]. People were literally just lying on the beach trying to keep out of the smoke and ash.

In Victoria, Mick Roberts from Buchan in the East Gippsland region had been unaccounted for since Monday. He was found dead in his home on Wednesday.

“He’s not missing any more ... sorry but his body has been found in his house,” Roberts’s niece Leah Parsons said on social media. “Very sad day for us to (start) the year but we’re a bloody tight family and we will never forget our mate and my beautiful Uncle Mick,” she wrote.

Burnt homes Batemans Bay, on the New South Wales south coast. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

In NSW, police have now confirmed deaths at Lake Conjola, Yatte Yattah, Sussex Inlet and Coolagolite. Authorities been unable to reach a property at Belowra in NSW where a 72-year-old man is presumed dead.

As relatively calm conditions set in on Wednesday, the sheer scale of the fire emergency was laid bare. People returned to find their homes damaged or destroyed. Thick smoke was visible more than 2,000km away, on the south island of New Zealand.

Authorities confirmed 176 homes have been lost on the NSW south coast; 89 in Conjola Park, 40 at Malua Bay and 15 in Rosedale. Another 50 properties have been destroyed in Victoria since Sunday. It is expected the final figures may be much higher.

The small inland communities of Cobargo, Quaama and Mogo in NSW were severely affected by the fires.

While most of the destruction occurred on Tuesday, the ferocity of the fires meant many people were unable to find out basic information until New Year’s Day. Electricity and communications lines were cut for extended periods in many areas. Roads in and out of towns remain closed.

The disaster has brought out stories of community and efforts to battle on in the face of unprecedented adversity in Victoria and NSW. In Bairnsdale, donations flooded in for those who had lost everything, who even then were reluctant to accept help.

“We had a couple with three kids here, and he [the father] started crying,” said helper Wendy McPhan. “I said, ‘here’s a $300 voucher for Woolies,’ and he said ‘no, I can’t take that, there’s people worse off.’

“I said: ‘Mate, you have lost everything. You have lost your house. There is no one worse off.’”

Related: Australia is becoming a nation of dread – and the world looks on with pity and scorn | David Marr

Many people are now concerned they might not be able to escape affected areas for days; a fear compounded by forecasts that the calm weather on Wednesday is but a brief reprieve.

Forecasters predict very hot and windy conditions for South Australia on Friday and dangerous bushfire conditions for eastern Victoria and New South Wales on Saturday, with temperatures again set to reach into the mid-40s.

The smoking ruin of a building in Cobargo, New South Wales. Photograph: Sean Davey/EPA

“We are assuming that on Saturday weather conditions will be at least as bad as what they were yesterday,” the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, said. “That is something all of us have to brace ourselves for.”

The likelihood of extreme conditions returning has added to the urgency to assist people who remain hemmed in by closed roads and uncontrolled firegrounds.

The Australian Defence Force has been deployed to attempt to evacuate residents from isolated communities by air or sea, and drop off supplies. A ship with supplies for two weeks – 1.6 tonnes of water, food, and 30,000 litres of fuel – has already left Melbourne.

Victorian premier Daniel Andrews, on a visit to Bairnsdale on Wednesday, said: “I don’t know that we’ve ever done this before … we’ve got choppers taking 90 firefighters out of the Mallacoota area, they can’t be removed any other way – we’re essentially doing a shift change by the air.”

The three major fires in Victoria’s East Gippsland region now cover about 500,000 hectares and have “essentially combined into one”, state emergency services commissioner Andrew Crisp said. A 100,000ha fire at Corryong, on the northern side of the Great Dividing Range, and another fire of a similar size in NSW, are also at risk of combining.

A burnt-out truck on the Princes Highway south of Nowra, New South Wales, on Wednesday. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Crisp said it would not be possible to put out those fires before the weather worsened. “It was nature which started the fires and it will be nature that stops these fires,” he said.

On Wednesday afternoon two fires burning on Kangaroo Island in South Australia merged, and firefighters have warned it could burn for weeks. Forecast northerly winds could push the fire towards the Flinders Chase national park.

Since the start of July, 15 people have been killed by the bushfires and more than 1,000 homes lost.

Firefighter Sam McPaul, 28, died when his fire truck was overturned by extreme winds east of Albury on Monday.

Father and son, Robert and Patrick Salway, were found dead inside their house in Cobargo on Tuesday.

The nature and scale of this bushfire season in Australia is unprecedented. Scientists have cited the lack of moisture in the landscape – following years of drought – as a key reason the fires have been so severe. Intense heat, dry conditions and strong winds have created conditions where the fire risk is considered extreme or catastrophic.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, at a reception for the Australian and New Zealand cricket sides at Kirribilli House, acknowledged the fires were “a time of great challenge for Australia”. Morrison reiterated comments from a New Year comment piece that focused on the resilience of communities and deflected debate about the underlying cause of the fires.

“Whether they’re started by lightning storms or whatever the cause may be, our firefighters and all of those who have come behind them to support them, whether they’re volunteering in the front line or behind the scenes in a great volunteer effort, it is something that will happen against the backdrop of this Test match.

“But at the same time, Australians will be gathering, whether it’s at the SCG [Sydney cricket ground] or around television sets all around the country, and they’ll be inspired by the great feats of our cricketers from both sides of the Tasman and I think they’ll be encouraged by the spirit shown by Australians and the way that people have gone about remembering the terrible things that other Australians are dealing with at the moment.”