NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said last night they were starting to hear of properties alight as firefighters continued to battle extreme bushfires.
He believed property losses could run into the dozens.
“Right across these fire grounds we are increasingly getting reports of significant damage and destruction,” he told the ABC .
“Some areas alone are reporting at least 15 properties alight in some locations.”
RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers late on Saturday night said properties were believed to be lost in the Batlow area and North Nowra, and there were also reports of properties impacted at Bundanoon in the Southern Highlands. He told ABC TV there were a lot of problems in the Snowy Mountains region, while a fire that had come across the Victorian border was threatening the southern town of Eden.
EMERGENCY WARNING – Border Fire (Bega Valley LGA)
If you are in the area of Womboyn, Kiah, Narrabarba, Towamba, Burragate, Eden and surrounds, you are at risk. It is too late to leave. Seek shelter as the fire approaches. #nswrfs #nswfires #alert pic.twitter.com/fHbAOc9fvg
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 4, 2020
Firefighters are focused on saving what they can as a southerly change sweeps up the coast from the Victoria border and fire-generated thunderstorms worsen the situation.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian earlier warned people facing extreme bushfires “it’s not safe to move, it’s not safe to leave these areas”. The situation was “very volatile” with southerly winds gusting up to 80km/h as the change moved up the coast.
The change reached Sydney earlier than the forecast midnight time but is still forecast to hit Taree about 5am today.
“Conditions are deteriorating rapidly,” the Bureau of Meteorology tweeted. “The gusty forecast southerly is pushing north and will continue along the coast tonight. Smoke plumes are triggering storms.”
A wind gust of 128 km/h was recorded at Cabramurra in the western Snowy Mountains. It also recorded an incredible top temperature of 69.8C at 4.30pm.
“The situation appears to be that an intense pyro-cumulonimbus cloud formed above an intense fire to the east of Cabramurra during the afternoon,” the bureau said in a statement explaining the temperature spike. NSW Energy Minister Matt Kean said power could be turned off to parts of the state after bushfires destroyed transmission lines in the Snowies.
“There may be a need to turn off power in parts of the network to keep the overall system secure,” the minister said in a statement.
Some 143 fires were burning across NSW on Saturday night. Some 3600 firefighters were on the ground battling blazes while hundreds of others were pre-positioned to tackle any new outbreaks.
Mr Fitzsimmons confirmed some large fires were generating their own thunderstorms which could generate cyclonic-type winds.
In some areas, firefighters had been withdrawn for their safety.
“Under these conditions suppression is unachievable,” the RFS commissioner said.
“The focus becomes saving lives and saving property as much as we can.”
Emergency warnings were in place on Saturday night for fires in the Snowy Monaro and Snowy Valley regions as well as on the South Coast and at the 271,683-hectare Green Wattle Creek blaze southwest of Sydney. The mercury climbed to 48.9C in Penrith – a new record for the Sydney basin beating the previous mark of 47.8C recorded in Richmond in 1939. Hospitals in Batlow, Pambula and Tumut were evacuated as were healthcare facilities in Tumbarumba and Delegate.
A statewide total fire ban is in place today while a week-long state of emergency – the third in as many months – continues.
Another difficult day for communities around NSW. At midnight, with the threat still not over, there are 7 fires at Emergency Warning and 11 at Watch & Act. A state-wide total fire ban remains in place for Sunday, 5 Jan. #nswrfs #nswfires pic.twitter.com/jopBiTrHZT
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 4, 2020
Eight people, including a firefighter, have died in NSW in the past week. Another man, seriously burnt in a bushfire in November, died in hospital last Sunday.
And in Victoria, blazes still threaten communities in the state’s bushfire-ravaged east where six people remain missing and almost a million hectares have been destroyed. About 110 properties and 220 outbuildings have been razed and authorities warn the numbers will likely grow.
“A number of people across East Gippsland that were previously missing … have been found and I can’t tell you how pleased we all are to be able to report that we’ve gone from 28 to 21, and it is now down to six people,” Premier Daniel Andrews said on Saturday night.
“We do have fears for their safety,” he added.
Among those who have reached safety are about 1200 people ferried from decimated coastal Mallacoota by HMAS Choules.
The Navy vessel reached Hastings, less than an hour’s drive from Melbourne, late on Saturday.
“We were running out of food, for starters,” a very relieved Jackie Stefanopoulos, 19, said after stepping ashore and to safety, admitting she had been petrified by the bushfires.
“There was no power in the household I was in, or I was seeking refuge in.”
The threat remained across parts of Victoria where more than 900,000 hectares of land has been overrun by fire and 13 emergency warnings remain in place. The towns of Omeo and Swifts Creek in East Gippsland as well as Corryong near the NSW border faced a challenging night.
About 50 people were evacuated from Omeo by Chinook helicopters but about 300 chose to stay in the township, Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville confirmed.
The evacuees were flown to Bairnsdale on the western side of the fires, before being transported to Sale.
More than 50 fires are still burning and people are urged to heed warnings and not be complacent.
“Lives can be lost if people don’t follow the instructions they’re given,” Mr Andrews said.
In Gippsland firefighters were working to save critical infrastructure and the Country Fire Authority’s Andy Gillham said they were “in for the long haul”.
“This is a marathon event and we expect to be busy managing these fires for at least the next eight weeks.”
The fires have already killed Buchan man Mick Roberts and Maramingo Creek man Fred Becker.
About 70 per cent of the 100,000 population of the fire-impacted East Gippsland have fled.
Major highways have been closed for days, phone and powerlines are down, and residents have been told not to drink tap water amid contamination fears. Heavy smoke has prompted an air quality alert for the Central, North Central, Northern Country, North East and Gippsland Regions by the Environmental Protection Authority.
After the sky turned red, then black at Mallacoota on Tuesday, people from the town are reporting the same thing has happened on Saturday.
Naval vessels plan to re-stock and return to the township to evacuate more people.
About 500 people are at a relief centre in Bairnsdale and there is an overflow centre at the local racecourse.
A state of emergency remains in place for Victoria throughout next week.