Thousands of people have taken shelter on the foreshore at Mallacoota, facing attack from bushfire embers and describing complete darkness across the sky.
"Erratic" bushfires have burnt through 207,733 hectares of East Gippsland and are now bearing down on the coastal town.
Relief centres have been packed out by 5500 people, while another 4000 people evacuated to the Mallacoota foreshore and braced for a wind change on Tuesday morning.
A cooler westerly change crossed the fire grounds from 1am, only reaching Mallacoota at 5am. As the fire roared past Mallacoota airport at 8am, the mercury shot up to 49 degrees from its radiant heat. It had dropped back to 19 degrees by about 11am, as the cool change set in.
Mallacoota was in complete darkness at 9am as the fires edged in, throwing embers close to the 4000 people on the beach.
"I can describe it as probably hell on earth," Michelle Roberts said, about 8.45am.
She was sheltering in her cafe, Croajingolong, on the foreshore with three others who were taking turns watering down the building.
"I feel sorry for the campers down there in tents under ember attack, " she said. "If it gets really bad, I'll open [the cafe] up and get people coming in."
Ms Roberts said she felt safer in the concrete building than on the beach, but said: "If worst comes to worst we're just going to have to make a run for it."
Residents moved to the beach in the darkness.
Larry Gray, a kayaker born in the town and visiting from Sydney, was at the end of a jetty at Mallacoota wrapped up in a blanket shortly before 11am.
He described the scenes as "grim". Houses were going, he said, and visibility had vanished into darkness as the fire moved in.
"We can see the fire coming towards us, there's hot embers flying through the air - small ones," Mr Gray said.
"It sounds like a freight train.
"It's completely black like midnight. There's a weird red glow."
Gas bottles from caravans on the foreshore had been dragged into the ocean to stop them exploding, he said. A Mallacoota local at the foreshore told ABC Radio he could hear gas bottles exploding from there.
At 11.30am, Larry Gray's wife Mary O'Malley said some of the thick smoke had finally lifted in Mallacoota. They had some visibility after hours of what looked like "armageddon".
"The thick black smoke just blocked out the sky completely," Ms O'Malley said.
"Suddenly, for the first time this morning we've got some daylight."
Since about 8.30am, the sky had either been pitch black or glowing red, "which is the scariest thing I've ever experienced".
Ms O'Malley, of Queens Park, Sydney, is on a borrowed boat with her family and friends, while firefighters continue to battle spot fires.
"Everyone's sitting here with swimming goggles, face masks and wet towels around their heads."
"As soon as [CFA] put one [fire] out, it starts up again," Ms O'Malley said.
Lou Battel, the publican at the Mallacoota Hotel, described an eeriness in the centre of the town as he stayed to defend the pub against the danger of embers from the winds rushing through.
"It looked like it was going to be the end of the world," he said, about 10.30am.
"It was like the apocalypse. The sky was all pitch black this morning and it stayed black for three hours and now it's all red at the moment."
Mr Battel said most people would likely be seeking refuge at a basketball hall rather that staying on the foreshore.
"They were all sitting on deck chairs down at the foreshore but it got pretty nasty when the embers came in so they jumped in the water," he says.
"Most of them would be at the basketball hall now and they've got a couple of fire trucks there."
Mr Battel said the latest wind change pushed the fire front away from town.
He was pumping water from the pub's swimming pool to keep the roof doused against embers, and has had a visiting band help carry buckets of water.
While outside, he wore a breathing mask and swimming goggles to guard against the heat.
"You can't see, your face itches and your eyes hurt," he said.
On Monday, 260 fires started across Victoria in baking heat, fanned by northerly winds.
Eight bushfires in Victoria's east remained at the emergency level on Tuesday, with the situation still considered "very dynamic" as a cool change creeps in.
Embers and lightning sparked an extra 61 fires between midnight and 5am across the state.
More than 1000 firefighters defended East Gippsland on Monday and overnight, and were focussed on protecting homes.
Helicopter footage shows up to 15 homes in Sarsfield destroyed and about a dozen in nearby Clifton Creek.
Joe Rettino, who lives on the edge of Sarsfield, said he had a "bitter sweet feeling" after a wind change saved his property.
"But we went for a bit of a drive to see how Sarsfield's fared ... there's been significant property losses there. I'm not sure how many properties but it's not good," the East Gippsland shire councillor said.
"It's just a bitter sweet feeling, I just can't believe the damage and devastation.
"If no one's been seriously hurt or killed it'll just be a miracle."
Four people were unaccounted for in East Gippsland on Tuesday morning.
Cr Rettino was in Granite Rock and Clifton Creek on Monday night to check on his brother-in-law, and could hear the fire roaring like a "jet engine".
"You could see a ring of fire. What was the scariest bit is you could actually hear the fire, like a roar.
"It's certainly something I don't want to see again, or experience again."
Three large fires burning since November have engulfed an estimated 207,733 hectares of the region’s drought-stricken forests.
In NSW, a volunteer firefighter died on Monday night after a truck crashed. Two colleagues also suffered burns in the incident near Jingellic, east of Albury.