Australia called up 3,000 defense-force reservists and ordered in more waterbombing planes to help fight ravaging wildfires as temperatures topped 100 degrees Fahrenheit Saturday.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison also deployed the Australian navy’s largest amphibious ship, the HMAS Adelaide, to support the evacuation of fire-affected areas along the southeastern coast. Two other navy ships, stationed near the town of Mallacoota in Victoria state, attempted to rescue 1,100 more people Saturday.
Emergency personnel were out in force in Victoria, where nearly 50 fires raged. In neighboring New South Wales state, more than 3,000 firefighters battled around 130 blazes, with 600 more on standby. In South Australia state, two people died in fires that consumed a quarter of Kangaroo Island, a popular tourist spot.
Firefighting efforts across the southeast were complicated by shifting winds forecast to reach up to 50 miles an hour. Two huge wildfires threatened to merge and cut off the inland town of Tumbarumba, some 300 miles southwest of Sydney by road, where Craig Wilesmith had stayed to help the Rural Fire Service defend properties at risk of being burned out.
“We are spread too thinly,” said Mr. Wilesmith, 52, who runs a carpet-cleaning business in the historic town in New South Wales. “We haven’t got enough people or gear on the ground to control the situation because it is coming at us from two directions.”
Another resident, Martin Wilton, stayed to defend his business, The Union Hotel, from the encroaching fires rather than flee to safety. Tumbarumba was in an “ember zone”—where burning wind-carried twigs and leaves can start new fires even when the main blazes are several miles away.
“It’s when there is no smoke that you worry most,” said Mr. Wilton, 54, who handed out cold drinks to weary firefighters, some of whom hadn’t slept in more than a day. The sudden disappearance of smoke can signal a change in the wind direction. Fire authorities warned a wind shift due late Saturday would put Tumbarumba in the path of an out-of-control fire that had blackened nearly 350,000 acres to the southwest.
In Victoria, authorities dropped satellite phones along with water and emergency supplies into isolated communities. Along the New South Wales coast, helicopters were deployed to find and rescue residents cut off by fires. Motorists trying to get to safety using the southeast’s main coastal highway were stopped in places by road closures following fire outbreaks.
“We make no bones about it: Today is all about saving lives,” Gladys Berejiklian, premier of New South Wales, said.
Mr. Morrison said the federal government had stepped up its response following a meeting of the National Security Committee on Saturday. The sharpened strategy includes using defense bases from Brisbane to Adelaide as temporary shelters for evacuees.
Mr. Morrison last month cut short a holiday in Hawaii, after being criticized for vacationing during the crisis. This week, visiting the fire-ravaged town of Cobargo in New South Wales—near where two men died in a blaze Monday—he was heckled by residents, some angry over what they saw as inadequate support for local firefighters. Some refused to shake his hand.