One ship, HMAS Choules, is an amphibious landing ship with a dock for helicopters and the capacity to carry 700 people at maximum load. The second, MV Sycamore, is a patrol vessel that can carry one helicopter.
HMAS Choules is expected to take 72 hours to reach the coast off eastern Victoria while the smaller MV Sycamore will be in the region within 48 hours.
Both ships will sail to East Gippsland, the region that includes Mallacoota, with HMAS Choules sailing from Sydney and being available to relieve towns on the South Coast of NSW if needed.
Victorian authorities continue to search for four people still missing in the huge blazes. In NSW it was confirmed on Tuesday that three people had died as towns and villages along the state’s South Coast were engulfed in flames and smoke from huge, out-of-control fires.
The army will establish a joint taskforce to co-ordinate the defence effort in Victoria while a second taskforce will be set up in NSW on Thursday, in the wake of talks between defence chiefs and state authorities.
The fastest assistance will come from at least seven helicopters and other aircraft with the capacity to drop supplies to towns in Victoria and NSW that are isolated by fire and road closures.
But the Morrison government is also facing calls for a bigger expansion in military intervention by mobilising soldiers to create fire breaks and using the Royal Australian Air Force to douse fires.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison spoke to General Angus Campbell, the Chief of the Defence Force, on Tuesday to confirm all requests for help in NSW and Victoria would be met with no impact on any other part of Australia receiving support.
Defence Minister Linda Reynolds later authorised the new deployments, including at least four helicopters, one fixed-wing aircraft and two ships.
The helicopters include a tandem-rotor Chinook for heavy lifting, two Black Hawks and one Taipan naval helicopter.
These will join two C-27J Spartan battlefield airlifters at the Royal Australian Air Force base at East Sale on New Year’s Day, making them available to assist nearby towns such as Mallacoota.
Defence personnel are already refuelling aerial tankers at RAAF bases, providing vehicles and drivers for search and rescue operations, serving meals to firefighters, providing accommodation for volunteers and mapping fires from the air.
With coastal towns surrounded by fire, Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp named Mallacoota as a priority area.
Victorian authorities are warning that there is more danger to come, with lightning strikes igniting 15 new fires on Tuesday, including some in the Alpine region and with a dangerous fire flaring up on the shores of Lake Eildon, another popular holiday spot.
The thousands of residents and tourists forced to shelter on Mallacoota’s foreshore for most of Tuesday as the flames approached the town were allowed to return to their accommodation later in the day.
But the state government has warned they may remain trapped in the town for days, until the Princes Highway, the main route in and out of the region, is made safe.
Across the region, more than 5500 people had sought refuge at relief centres by Tuesday, with more than 400,000 hectares of land either burnt or burning in East Gippsland.
Scores of property losses have already been confirmed, and many more are expected, with Mr Crisp saying 19 structures were confirmed destroyed at Sarsfield and another 24 at Buchan.
Homes have also been razed in Bairnsdale, Clifton Creek, Sarsfield, Club Terrace, Nicholson, Bruthen, Gelantipy and Genoa, with Mr Crisp describing the property losses as “significant”.
There have been major losses of livestock, fencing, sheds and equipment on rural and farming properties, Emergency Victoria said on Tuesday afternoon.
The state government was releasing few details of the circumstances surrounding the four missing people, with the Premier simply saying authorities were concerned about their welfare.
“We do have real fears for their safety,” Mr Andrews said.
“They’ve been in active fire environments and we can’t account for them.”
Travelling in East Gippsland is expected to remain difficult for days, with Princes Highway and Great Alpine Road still closed in both directions east of Bairnsdale.
Mr Andrews also said on Tuesday that he had asked the US and Canada to deploy 70 remote area firefighters to help exhausted Victorian crews. More firefighting aircraft have also been requested from North America.
Sarsfield resident Naomi Holland told The Age of returning to the town on Tuesday morning to check on her parent’s property in Duncan Road, where the destruction was “completely unpredictable”.
“You can sort of see areas where it’s completely singed,” she said.
“There will be just a house standing completely untouched surrounded by burnt grass, and then there’s other areas where homes are completely decimated.
“It’s pretty bad, a lot of people don’t know if their homes are still standing.”
The CFA was still on Duncan Road on Tuesday afternoon, clearing trees and putting out spot fires, Ms Holland said.
Authorities told her that if she left her home, she would be prevented from returning.
“Standing on my parents’ verandah, every now and then we get another puff of smoke. We’re just on watch in case there’s another spot fire,” she said.
CFA chief Steve Warrington said Tuesday’s change took the fires that were threatening to engulf Mallacoota and Corryong away from the towns.
“I understand there was a public cheer at the [Mallacoota] jetty when that was announced. That is good news for us.”
Although Victoria’s temperatures will remain mild over the coming days, Mr Crisp said authorities were bracing for another spike in fires at the weekend with temperature set to hit 34 degrees on Friday.
Crews will work towards containing all the current blazes, and prepare for what could be another bad day on Saturday.
“In terms of fire danger ratings, we’re looking at least very high across all of the districts and there’s a possibility a couple of those districts are moving into severe, which will trigger a discussion about a total fire ban,” Mr Crisp said.
Mr Warrington said no Victorian firefighters had been physically harmed by the blazes but it had been a traumatic few days in which emotions and stress levels were running high.
“Particularly from last [Monday] night, some of our crews, they had to drive past houses that were on fire, so that in itself is very traumatic,” Mr Warrington said.
“They were working right through the night, so they’re tired, and they’re stressed.
“At times, there were people that made the decision not to follow our direction and remain in isolated communities and stay in place.
“Unfortunately when that happened, those same people, in some cases, said to us, ‘Hey can you come rescue us, it has got so bad.’ And we weren’t able to get in and that caused some anxiety for our crews.”
Firefighters battling infernos in remote and isolated parts of the state had been sleeping in their CFA trucks, Mr Warrington said, and added the conditions over the past two days had been “terrible” and “bordering horrific”.
David Crowe is chief political correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age
Sumeyya is state political reporter for The Age.
Ashleigh McMillan is a breaking news reporter at The Age. Got a story? Email me at email@example.com