SYDNEY, Australia – As the fire lurked towards the coastal city of Mallacoota, the daytime sky turned black as ink and then blood red. Emergency sirens sounded, then replaced by thunder from gas explosions. Thousands of residents fled their homes and snuggled close to the shore. There was no other place to go.
On the last day of the warmest decade recorded in Australia, the east coast of the country was dotted with apocalyptic scenes such as Mallacoota on Tuesday, a holiday destination between Sydney and Melbourne.
Australia is in the midst of a devastating fire season, with summer months yet to go, as record temperatures, high winds and prolonged drought have ignited huge flames throughout the country.
In Mallacoota, boat residents shared images of themselves on social media with masks and life jackets while waiting for the mysterious light. Others chose to stay and defend homes, comparing the burning trees to "explosive hells,quot; and describing the roar of the flames.
In Batemans Bay, four hours north, residents sat in folding chairs along the beach, life rafts ready, while a fire surrounded the city and burned houses. To the south, in Cobargo, a father and his son died in a fire, with a death toll of at least 11 in the fires this season.
As several fires burned out of control, thousands were stranded in evacuation centers in other cities along the coast while firefighters told people to stay. Tens of thousands of people ran out of electricity, the Australian army was authorized to deploy airplanes and naval vessels, and the government requested help to fight fires in Canada and the United States.
In Sydney, where the strong smoke from the fires has darkened the sun many days this summer, authorities rejected calls to cancel the city's New Year's Eve fireworks display after the Rural Fire Service in New South Wales approved the celebration.
Still, service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said Tuesday that this fire season was one of the worst, with more than 900 homes destroyed in New South Wales and millions of acres burned. A fire has reached the western part of Sydney.
The fires have been so fierce that they have they created their own weather systems and forced volunteer firefighters to work 24 hours. On Monday night, a volunteer firefighter died after a "fire tornado,quot; in New South Wales caused a 10-ton fire truck to tip over.
The firefighter, Samuel McPaul, 28, would become a father in May. He was the third volunteer firefighter to die in this fire season; the other two were parents of young children.
In Mallacoota, just across the border in the state of Victoria, residents spent Monday night preparing to evacuate. As the fire approached, some gathered in a community center, while others boarded boats in bodies of water.
"I had never seen anything like it,quot; said a man filming his escape in a boat.
Ida Dempsey of Melbourne, who spends Christmas every year in the area with her family, also took refuge in the water.
"We couldn't see anything. It was completely black," said Mrs. Dempsey. "We had facial masks; the smoke was very bad."
He praised firefighters for keeping people calm. "If we didn't have a plan, I would have panicked a little more," he said.
In Batemans Bay, said James Findlay, who grew up there, the fire occurred so fast that there was no hope of saving his family's home.
"Everything is gone," he said.
His parents, Findlay said, were in shock.
"People have lost their homes, their farms and people have lost their lives," he said.
"If this is not a kind of signal that more should be done, then I don't know what it is."