Motorists desperate to get out of the NSW south coast have been forced to sleep in their cars, or on the side of the road, as they waited for emergency services to escort vehicles out in the early hours of Friday.
As night fell along the Princes Highway, thousands of people laid out bedding, pulled up camping chairs, walked their dogs and put their children to sleep on the side of the road as a long convoy of bushfire evacuees waited for the road to re-open.
By Thursday evening most had been waiting for hours in bumper-to-bumper traffic stretching for kilometres from the small coastal community of Milton to at least Ulladulla.
‘It’s going to be a blast furnace’
Near the evacuation centre in Ulladulla, Heidi McClelland watched over her two-year-old son, Spike, asleep in blankets, while her mother and 10-week-old son Johnny remained in the car.
Ms McClelland, 35, left her home in Dalmeny, south east of Eurobodalla, at 11am (local time) on Thursday after being told at a town meeting on Wednesday that young families should depart ahead of worsening weekend conditions.
“(We were told) it’s just going to be catastrophic on Saturday – so pretty much just get in the car and go,” Ms McClelland said.
While some locals have offered them a place to stay for the night, “we’re just staying in the line so we don’t lose our spot”, she added.
At 9:25pm on Thursday, the NSW Rural Fire Service said it had begun escorting vehicles on the Princes Highway heading north between Milton and Nowra.
“Due to heavy traffic, this process will take at least 6 – 7 hours to complete,” the RFS said.
“The highway may close at short notice due to firefighting operations.”
On Thursday, huge queues formed at petrol stations as desperate drivers tried to get out of the area.
“There was panic in everybody’s eyes,” one woman, who drove from Ulladulla to Sydney, told Yahoo News Australia.
On Thursday afternoon police warned that roads would need to be periodically closed due to the fire threat and drivers were still urged to keep up with live updates at Live Traffic NSW.
Bega MP and Transport Minister Andrew Constance, who has taken aim at Scott Morrison’s poor leadership over the crisis, said it was the “largest relocation of people out of the region in history”.
“It’s going to be a blast furnace,” he said.
On Friday morning, NSW Police confirmed a seventh person has died in bushfires impacting the state’s south coast. Almost 450 homes were destroyed on New Year’s Eve, authorities confirmed on Friday, with the number destroyed over the bushfire season now reaching 1365.
As of Friday morning, NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott was still not back from a European holiday he had refused to return from.
Frustration grows as people left sleeping in cars
Melva Kerr, 65, was travelling with her 31-year-old daughter, Elle Kerr, from Batemans Bay to Sydney when they got stuck at Ulladulla.
“If they don’t open it tonight I think we’re all just sleeping in our cars but as soon as it opens hopefully we can get through,” Ms Kerr told AAP on Thursday night.
She felt many people were determined to stick out the long wait until the roads open because of the dangerous forecast conditions.
Hundreds of frustrated people at a road block south of Nowra. Many waiting 10+ hours to travel sth on the Princes Highway to evacuate loved ones. These people are going back to their cars to sleep. Many are already there, waiting, angry #NSWfires #AustraliaBurning pic.twitter.com/YMOA15ZJJO
— Hilary Whiteman (@hilary_whiteman) January 2, 2020
NSW is under under a statewide total fire ban on Friday and Saturday amid the third state of emergency of the bushfire season.
Holidaymakers in the alps and between Nowra and the Victorian border were asked to be out by Friday night.
The RFS and tree fellers were on Thursday working to make the Princes Highway safe following two incidents of falling trees, the spokeswoman said.
On Friday morning, thousands of motorists in the area were making their way north as the Princes Highway reopened. However towns like Conjola and Bendalong remained cut off with police currently escorting people from those areas.
“Lake Conjola Entrance Road and Bendalong Road are both closed currently, however motorists in those areas are being escorted to the Princes Highway,” a spokesperson, from the NSW Transport Management Centre, told Yahoo News Australia at 10:30am.
Authorities are escorting vehicles in groups of 50.
The Rural Fire Service is confident everyone will be able to be out by Friday afternoon as the weather turns.
“That is what we’re hoping,” an RFS spokersperson told Yahoo News Australia.
“Our main focus is on those leave notices that we issued.”
A number of fires continue to burn throughout the south coast and crews are bracing for the worst to come.
“Those fires aren’t contained and there’s no way we can contain them before conditions deteriorate,” the RFS spokesperson said.
— With AAP
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