A Bendigo deputy principal has described chaotic scenes as communities along the NSW south-east coast were forced to evacuate from the state's bushfires.
Bendigo Senior Secondary College's Mark Lau, his wife, and two children returned home from the NSW town of Eden on Friday after ringing in the New Year from an evacuation site.
"It's not how I thought I would spend New Year's Eve," Mr Lau said. "We thought we would be able to spend it with friends at the camping ground. We spent it at an evacuation site instead."
Thousands of tourists and locals were sent to the local sports ground as two major fires crept towards the coastal town. But despite the fire front being about an hour away, Mr Lau said many people were panicking.
"We were never in immediate danger, but of course there's a lack of clear information," he said.
"One person hears something and then the whispers take place and all of a sudden the fire is at the back door, when it's actually not.
"People were panic buying in the supermarket. There was a chappy walking in with a full shopping trolley of long life milk - well, I'm not sure why he needed that.
"It was also very frustrating in terms of difficulty getting fuel and difficulty getting information."
The NSW Royal Fire Service on New Year's Day encouraged families to leave the area before conditions worsened at the weekend.
Mr Lau and his family were unable to get fuel to leave town on that Wednesday, but had more success on the Thursday morning.
"They did a terrific job in getting fuel into the town," Mr Lau said. "The community in Eden was terrific - the SES and everybody was helping everybody. There was a marvellous Australian spirit there to see."
The Lau family left Eden about 11am on Thursday, but with the Princes Highway closed due to the fires, they had to take the long way home through Canberra.
"The traffic was horrendous, the smoke was horrendous, and in some cases we were only at a walking pace on the highway," Mr Lau said.
"It was just the sheer volume - thousands of cars. It was really, really difficult driving conditions."
The family eventually made it home to Newstead on Friday. Mr Lau said while he and his family were safe, many along the NSW south-east coast were still in a dire situation.
"I think we all need to keep in mind that the threats aren't over there," he said. "It sounds like Friday and Saturday is going to be real risk times for them again.
"Good friends are fighting to save homes at the moment. I was hoping they would be out of danger."
Nineteen people have died and almost 1600 homes have been destroyed since the NSW fire season started a few months ago.
Two people have also died in the bushfires in eastern Victoria, with about 450 building razed in the blazes across East Gippsland and the alpine area.
Mr Lau said despite making the informed decision to go to Eden, he and his family probably should have stayed in central Victoria.
But he said his family would return to the NSW coast when the communities are ready.
"It's our summer getaway and it's where I recharge my batteries," he said.
"We'll definitely go back. I think the people up there and the businesses will need it.
"They need tourist dollars to come in the future and help them get back on their feet. It's really important."
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