POLICE will step up the hunt for four masked men who put dozens of Coalfields homes at risk on Friday after the torching of a car turned into a towering bushfire and threatened three towns.
More than 180 firefighters stood shoulder-to-shoulder with residents armed with garden hoses to push back the flames which could have engulfed homes at Aberdare, Kearsley and Neath.
With record temperatures and a blustery, hot wind fanning the flames, other residents raced to save livestock and pets as some were evacuated to town halls as the danger neared.
Three helicopters and 50 fire trucks were used to protect property.
The bushfire was a reignition of a blaze on Thursday, after four men wearing bandannas to mask their faces were seen in a vandalised car before it was dumped in bushland and set alight.
‘‘The wind picked up and within minutes it was on us,’’ said Aberdare resident Katie Nelson, who was at home with her four-year-old son, Thomas. ‘‘I was just in the front room with the blinds closed and walked outside to let the dog out and just thought ‘Oh, s--t’. It was just too intense, me being by myself with the little one.’’
Mrs Nelson’s husband, Graeme, was working with the Millfield fire brigade but rushed home when he heard the news. He arrived in time to put out three spot fires on the roof of the family home.
‘‘Luckily my husband came back in time to help out,’’ she said. ‘‘He was sitting there waiting to be deployed, but never got the call but he has done his job, he saved our house.’’
The blaze reignited about 2pm yesterday, quickly spreading towards Melbourne Street homes.
Quick-thinking fire crews and residents were able to repel the flames, before the north-westerly wind sent the fire front towards Duffie Drive. And when it jumped the road and headed towards Kearsley, police evacuated several residents as more fire crews turned up to protect property.
Comerford Close residents Matt and Amy Musgrove only realised there was a fire when a neighbour alerted them to the flames behind their backyard.
‘‘We saw it come over and spread so fast, we went out there with hoses, buckets, eskies, dog bowls and anything else we could grab,’’ Mr Musgrove said. ‘‘In 20 years here, we have had a few fires but it has never come up this close before. One of my mate’s fences was burnt to the ground.’’
While the family were busy protecting their home, a helicopter working on the fire started circling their pool.
‘‘Next minute, it was lining us up and dipping down to take our water,’’ Mr Musgrove said.
RFS incident controller John Ryan said 185firefighters were needed to battle the blaze. They would continue into the night to put in control lines.
‘‘It is still an active fire and still uncontrollable,’’ Mr Ryan said.
Detectives have taken over the hunt for the four men responsible for the blaze. A member of the public told police they saw a partially stripped car being driven along Melbourne Street on Thursday afternoon.
The Toyota Camry was then dumped in bushland near Mulbring Street and set alight.
Residents struggled to contain their anger after learning that the fire had been deliberately lit.
‘‘It is just ridiculous ... they have got to suffer the full extent of the law,’’ Aberdare resident Sonia Whitton said. ‘‘They need to be taught the consequences of their actions.’’
Neighbour Scott Keeley said arsonists should be put ‘‘into a program so they learn what they’ve done.’’
‘‘Maybe they should make them do a bit of backburning,’’ he said.
At least one firefighter needed treatment as he succumbed to the heat, one of several across the state.
"It’s just a really difficult day. We have had a number of firefighters collapse with heat exhaustion ... A very difficult day for firefighters," RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.
Fire authorities reported taking more than 1000 phone calls, with more than more than 700 firefighters battling 95 fires across NSW, including 14 that are uncontrolled.
In the worst fire, firefighters continue to fight a 45,000-hectare blaze in the Warrumbungle National Park, west of Coonabarabran.