Conditions began to ease by late Saturday afternoon, but the situation remains precarious.
Authorities in South Australia said at least 72 homes were destroyed in the Cudlee Creek fires, which started yesterday and devastated the Adelaide Hills today.
RELATED: Entire town of 150 homes nearly wiped out by bushfires
RELATED: ‘Just resign’: Aussies react to PM’s return
RELATED: Familiar face seen battling bushfires
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall described the scene as “absolutely devastating”. “This is a very sad day for the people of South Australia as many return to their homes in the Adelaide Hills … and all they find is rubble,” he said.
The Premier also confirmed that 404 outbuildings at properties and 227 vehicles have been destroyed.
In NSW, the areas hardest hit include Lithgow and along the Bells Line of Road in the upper Blue Mountains, and the Wollondilly Shire villages of Buxton, Balmoral and Bargo, which were ravaged for the second time in three days.
A sudden wind change flared an immense blaze near Green Wattle Creek on Saturday as temperatures hit 41C, destroying an as-yet-unknown number of homes.
Speaking today, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian expressed her devastation as she confirmed “there’s not much left in the town of Balmoral”.
“I’m very sad to hear that, and many residents, of course, have had that news in the last little while,” Ms Berejiklian told reporters.
RELATED: PM rules out climate change rethink
RELATED: ‘I am not a trained firefighter’ – PM returns
RELATED: Hero firey’s amazing koala rescue
The town is home to some 400 people, with an estimated 150 houses.
Expert teams are currently assessing the damage, and will let residents know when it’s safe for them to return, she said.
“We want people to have access to their land, to their property, as soon as they can. But it has to be safe. Even if people have lost their properties, they still want to go back to see what’s left and if there is anything they can salvage.”
NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says the extent of property damage, which includes houses as well as other structures such as sheds, is “significant”.
“We could be talking about another hundred buildings being added to the state tally so far this season,” he told reporters today.
RELATED: Dark conspiracy spreading across Australia
RELATED: Drivers warned of ‘serious issues’ on roads
RELATED: Family of fire victim recall ‘loving’ man
Emergency warnings weren’t downgraded until the early hours of Sunday morning. “We are expecting another heavy toll unfortunately with estimates that property loss could be in the dozens of buildings including homes, outbuildings, sheds and businesses,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.
Crews are expected to experience more favourable weather conditions in coming days as they work to limit the spread of some 110 fires, of which almost 60 are uncontained.
Mr Fitzsimmons said firefighters would take advantage of better conditions this week, which should include temperatures in the mid-20s, higher humidity and easterly winds.
The biggest focus will be on preparing vulnerable Blue Mountains communities ahead of hotter and more challenging conditions returning next weekend.
“With the easing weather conditions today, crews are working hard to strengthen containment lines,” the RFS said in a statement on Sunday.
“Planning is underway for large scale back burns today in the Blue Mountains to contain the Grose Valley Fire.”
The Greater Sydney basin didn’t reach the forecast catastrophic conditions on Saturday because heavy bushfire smoke acted as insulation to reduce temperatures.
The heavy smoke – which has been causing hazardous air pollution for months – also mitigated the strengthening winds.
RELATED: Nightmare conditions for firefighters
RELATED: ‘How dare you’: Protesting girl blasts PM
RELATED: What Scott Morrison really did wrong
RELATED: Fire maps show shocking predictions
“It was a blessing in terms of preventing the catastrophic conditions reaching their forecast level in the Greater Sydney area,” Mr Fitzsimmons said. Firefighters suffered from heat exhaustion on Saturday, with one crew in the Dargan area overcome by chlorine fumes after a building containing the chemical caught alight.
A number of firefighters were taken to hospital for treatment. Mr Fitzsimmons warned the worse was still to come this summer, with “far more risk and exposure as we head through the hotter months”.
“We’re not expecting any meaningful rain to start bringing a meaningful easing of conditions on these fire grounds until late January or early February,” he said.
PM APOLOGISES FOR HAWAII HOLIDAY
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison today apologised for taking a family vacation in Hawaii as deadly bushfires raged across several states.
Mr Morrison cut short a vacation with his wife and adult children amid public anger at his absence from Australia at a time of national crisis.
He arrived home Saturday and on Sunday morning spoke to reporters while visiting the headquarters of the RFS.
“If you had your time over again and you had the benefit of hindsight, we would have made different decisions,” Morrison said. “I am sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your kids you try and keep it.”
He added: “But as Prime Minister, you have other responsibilities and I accept that and I accept the criticism.”
Mr Morrison said this was not a time for political pointscoring but a “time to be kind to each other”. He said he is not a trained firefighter, but is “comforted by the fact that Australians would like me to be here just simply so I can be here, alongside them, as they are going through this terrible time”.
He also answered critics who say his government has not done enough to fight climate change, which has been cited as a major factor in the spate of fires burning across NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
He said there were also “many other factors” responsible for the unprecedented number of fires during a record-breaking heatwave.
“There is no argument … about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world,” he said. “But I’m sure people equally would acknowledge that the direct connection to any single fire event – it’s not a credible suggestion to make that link.”