Chilling new warning: The worst is yet to come

 

It was the bushfire emergency firefighters feared - but expected.

Multiple large fires burning across the state, the drought creating dangerous fuel conditions and a strong westerly wind pushing fire danger ratings off the charts.

In one of the most terrifying firefighting days in recent years, three people perished and there were fears for several others in a firestorm that took many residents by surprise.

An estimated 150 homes, schools and businesses between the Queensland border down to the NSW mid-north coast are believed to be destroyed, with the loss expected to rise as assessment teams move in.

However, the nightmare has only just begun.

The state is now facing up to a dangerous summer of fires as several blazes burning in deep bush edge towards coastal populations.

The next challenge will come on Tuesday, with fire crews bracing for conditions on par, if not worse, than conditions that fuelled the unprecedented emergency last week.

NSW Rural Fire Service fire behaviour analyst Simon Heemstra described the upcoming conditions as "very hot, very dry and very windy".

"The three are lining up on Tuesday for potentially significant fire weather," he said.

RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons. Picture: Julian Andrews
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons. Picture: Julian Andrews

Over the next two days fire crews will be racing the clock to bring as many blazes as they can under control.

But containment efforts will be challenged by a drought-stricken landscape, where there is plenty of fuel and no moisture in the soil.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons described the resulting fire behaviour as "extraordinary".

"You've got flammability of the fuel, which is seeing extraordinary fire behaviour, fires starting extremely quickly, spreading and burning very intensely," he said.

"And very quickly with spot fire activity doubling or tripling what is normally expected over the fire conditions we have been experiencing."

The fuel, coupled with gusty winds on Friday, created a situation where embers were travelling for more than 10km and starting spot fires.

"What we had on Friday was really deep mixing and it was pulling strong winds down and that was giving us that strong gustiness that was fanning the flames," Mr Heemstra explained.

"That provides more heat and energy. Then the embers get higher into the atmosphere and are transported further." In some regions, like Ballina and Armidale, the fire danger ratings on Friday were the highest on record. A decent downpour a week ago had little impact.

"The water sat on the surface and the wind we've had has taken it away and we are back to square one," Mr Heemstra said.

A firefighter on property protection watches the progress of bushfires in Old Bar. Picture: Shane Chalker
A firefighter on property protection watches the progress of bushfires in Old Bar. Picture: Shane Chalker

Fire crews were drawing from rivers, ponds and streams when possible and relying heavily on areas where water supply wasn't dire, like Coffs Harbour and the Richmond air force base.

On Friday night, firefighters around the Taree blazes could be heard calling in as properties became engulfed in flames.

One volunteer, who earlier called in to say his crew was "under attack", declared: "It's out of control here."

Another firefighter spoke of being unable to save homes: "Three houses are gone and we are engaging in property protection, but going to pull out. House is unsaveable."


Over at Frasers Creek, a call went out for resources to help a person who was trapped.

"We are going to try and put a defensive perimeter around the property," a volunteer said. "Bridge involved in fire and is unpassable," another said. Not all residents chose to leave their properties.

"There is a property here with 80 per cent of it surrounded by fire," a firefighter said. "The owners do not want to leave."

Emergency Services Minister David Elliott thanked the 1300 RFS volunteers and 200 NSW Fire and Rescue and interstate firefighters that were fighting the blazes.