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Death toll is still rising as bushfires rip across drought-hit Australia

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A firefighter hoses down trees and flying embers in a bid to save house in Nowra, New South Wales.  Photo: Getty Images

A firefighter hoses down trees and flying embers in a bid to save house in Nowra, New South Wales. Photo: Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

A firefighter hoses down trees and flying embers in a bid to save house in Nowra, New South Wales. Photo: Getty Images

A third person was confirmed dead on New Year's Day in devastating bushfires that engulfed Australia's south-east coast this week and a fourth was missing feared dead, as navy ships rushed to bring in supplies and help with evacuations.

At least 15 people are believed to have died and scores are missing after weeks of fires that have ripped through Australia's drought-ridden east coast.

Soaring temperatures have stoked columns of fire and smoke that blackened entire towns on Monday and Tuesday, forcing thousands of residents and holidaymakers to seek shelter on beaches. Many stood in shallow water to escape the flames.

Bushfires have destroyed more than four million hectares and new blazes are sparked almost daily by arid and windy conditions.

Cooler conditions yesterday gave the country a moment to take stock, but there were still more than 100 blazes in New South Wales alone and thousands of firefighters on the ground.

Destruction

The body of a man was found in a burnt car in New South Wales after emergency workers began reaching the most damaged areas, with the death toll expected to rise.

"Sadly, we can report today that police have confirmed a further three deaths as a result of the fires on the South Coast," a police spokesman said.

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Vehicles gutted by bushfires are seen in the Lake Conjola area, New South Wales. Photo: Getty Images

Vehicles gutted by bushfires are seen in the Lake Conjola area, New South Wales. Photo: Getty Images

AFP via Getty Images

Vehicles gutted by bushfires are seen in the Lake Conjola area, New South Wales. Photo: Getty Images

"Police are also at Lake Conjola, where a house has been destroyed by fire and the occupant of that home is still unaccounted for."

Police have not yet identified the missing man but he is believed to be 72 years old and they had not been able to get to his home.

Nearly 200 homes are believed to have been destroyed, police said. In Victoria state, four people are still missing after a huge blaze ripped through Gippsland, 500km east of Melbourne.

About 4,000 people in the town of Mallacoota in Victoria headed to the waterfront after the main road was cut off.

Mark Tregellas, a resident of Mallacoota who spent the night on a slipway, said only a late shift in the wind direction sparred lives.

"The fire just continued to grow and then the black started to descend," he said.

"I couldn't see the hand in front in my face, and then it started to glow red and we knew the fire was coming.

"Ash started to fall from the air and then the embers started to come down.

"At that point, people started to bring their kids and families into the water. Thankfully, the wind changed and the fire moved away."

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A satellite image of the Batemans Bay shows smoke and fire.

A satellite image of the Batemans Bay shows smoke and fire.

via REUTERS

A satellite image of the Batemans Bay shows smoke and fire.

Thousands of Australians remain cut off as fires force the closure of major roads, leaving many struggling to secure supplies.

In Milton, a town on the south coast of New South Wales, locals queued for hours for the few remaining items left on supermarket shelves.

Emma Schirmer, who was evacuated from her house in Batemans Bay with her three-month-old child, said the local shop was limiting sales to six items per customer.

As shops run low and firefighters struggle with exhaustion, Australia's military, including Black Hawk helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft and naval vessels, were being deployed.

Victoria's emergency management commissioner, Andrew Crisp, said HMAS Choules, which can carry up to 1,000 people, is due to arrive today and may be used to evacuate many of those stranded in Mallacoota, though extra transport will be needed.

New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian said authorities were working to restore communications with areas cut off by the fires, though she warned conditions will deteriorate again over the weekend.

Meanwhile, Australia's capital Canberra was blanketed in thick smoke, reaching about 20 times hazardous levels, prompting health warnings.

The smoke has also drifted to New Zealand, where it has turned the daytime sky orange across the South Island.