NSW BUSH FIRES: Fire threat, destruction keep state on edge

SATURDAY, OCTOBER 19

A grateful publican is laying on beers for firefighters in the Hunter who helped save his watering hole. Read the article here.

For updates from the Rural Fire Service, see the website.

You can also see more incredible shots from the fires across New South Wales by clicking here.

14:52PM UPDATE:

Here's a link to the fire map from the Rural Fire Service showing the fire situation in the Southern Highlands including Yanderra, Balmoral and Winton – click here.

14:33 UPDATE:

An emergency warning is in place for the fire in the Springwood area due to an increase in fire activity.

Fire activity has intensified in the area around Muru Avenue and St Columba's High School at Springwood. There is thick smoke in the area.

The RFS says to be alert to burning embers.

13:06 UPDATE: 

There is now concern for a break out of the State Mine Fire between Lithgow and Bilpin. There is a threat to properties in areas including Bell and Dargan and Berambing and Bilpin. 

Fire activity has intensified around the areas of Dargan and Bell. There is a threat to properties in this area. If you are in this area, seek shelter as the fire impacts. Protect yourself from the heat of the fire.Fire activity has also intensified near the communities of Berambing and Bilpin. People in this area should seek shelter as the fire impacts. Protect yourself from the heat of the fire. It is too late to leave. Avoid driving in these conditions.The Bells Line Of Road is closed in some sections.

12:36PM UPDATE: Emergency Warning - State Mine Fire (Lithgow & Blue Mountains). Fire activity has intensified around the area of Bell. See the RFS website for more details.

12:35PM UPDATE:

Premier Barry O'Farrell and NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons have just given a press conference at Catherine Hill Bay, south of Newcastle.

Commissioner Fitzsimmons said 200 interstate personnel have joined the fire effort in NSW, including 50 from South Australia.

"We're seeing kilometres and kilometres of back-burning efforts right across these fire grounds," he said. However, 193 homes confirmed destroyed and 109 damaged.

And Premier Barry O'Farrell was asked about the ADF's investigation into the State Mine fire, which it believes it may have started in a explosives training operation on Thursday.

"Let's get the facts first," is all he would say. Although he did confirm the blaze had started on Defence land.

12:15PM UPDATE:

Those returning to homes are being warned about the dangers of asbestos.

Deputy State Emergency Operations Controller, Assistant Commissioner Clarke said residents should be aware asbestos may be present in homes built prior to 1987.

"I would recommend to residents returning, that if their houses were built prior to 1987, not to disturb debris.

"If you intend on entering, I would recommend wearing a P2 mask and protective clothing as a precaution," he said. Wise words

11:30AM UPDATE:

Defence has released a statement, saying it is investigating the circumstances of the State Mine Fire near Lithgow.

"The fire started on 16 October, the same day that Defence personnel were conducting an explosive ordnance training activity at Marangaroo Training Area. Defence is investigating if the two events are linked.

"The primary concern at this stage is for the safety of the communities in the vicinity of the fire, then the ongoing investigation which will review both the incident and Defence procedures.

"Our thoughts are with those who have lost property or whose property is threatened by these devastating fires.

"Defence will work with the NSW Rural Fire Service to investigate the incident and Defence procedures, once the fire has been extinguished."

10:30AM UPDATE: 

Details have emerged about Zig Zag Railway in Lithgow, which has suffered millions of dollars damaged in a blaze which ripped through the iconic tourist attraction on Thursday. CEO Michael Forbes spoke to Fairfax Regional Media.

9:33AM UPDATE:

Newcastle Herald photographer Jonathon Carroll thought an assignment photographing a fire near Doyalson North was going to be his last.

"I was petrified," he said. He even considered calling his wife to speak to his kids for the last time. Read his incredible account here.

9:20AM UPDATE:

Prime Minister Tony Abbott and NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell have announced bushfire-affected communities will have access to disaster assistance. Nineteen local council areas can now apply for relief, with more expected to be announced in coming days. ‘‘A very high level of threat still continues for many communities around NSW and emergency services and support agencies are working around the clock to contain these threats,’’ Mr Abbott and Mr O’Farrell said in a joint statement. ‘‘While the extreme weather has eased, the threat for many communities is not yet over.’’

9:18AM UPDATE:

The RFS has just confirmed 193 homes destroyed, 109 damaged in Springwood/Winmalee area.

8:45AM UPDATE:

The latest Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers:

- there are concerns about a fire in Lithgow that is burning over 28,000 hectares and could tear through the mountains if the wind changes direction.- a fire at Winmalee, where 81 houses have been confirmed lost and 37 damaged, is also unlikely to be contained ahead of the changing conditions.- a 10,000 hectare fire in Balmoral remains active after crossing multiple roads.- the threat to properties in Wyong has reduced after a fire at Ruttleys Road burnt more than 2500 hectares and caused the death of a 63-year-old man, who suffered a heart attack defending his home.

8:20AM UPDATE: 

The Rural Fire Service advises that fires still burning in NSW have been downgraded to "Watch and Act". In brief:

*The Ruttleys Road fire has burnt more than 2650 hectares of bushland. The threat has reduced to properties in Chain Valley Bay North, Gwandalan and Summerland Point communities. Firefighters are continuing to back burn in the Munmorah State Conservation Area from the Pacific Highway to Birdie Beach Drive. There is a potential threat to properties in Elizabeth Bay Drive, Lake Munmorah.. In brief:

*The fast-moving State Mine fire has burnt more than 27,600 hectares near Lithgow and towards Bilpin and Mountain Lagoon. Fire is burning on both sides of Mount Irvine Road. People near Reserve Road, east of the Great Western Highway, should be mindful of fire buring to the east.

*The Hank Street fire in the Heatherbrae area has burnt more than 5000 hectares of bushland. The fire is currently burning in the area of Tomago Road, near the industrial development. There is potential for the fire to spread into the Botanical Gardens if containment lines are breached.

*The Hall Road fire, in the Southern Highlands, is continuing to burn near the villages of Balmoral, Yanderra, Bargo, Pheasants Nest and Wilton. The uncontained fire has burnt more than 9000 hectares, crossing Picton Road, and is burning within the Sydney Catchment area near Macarthur Drive, Wilton. The fire has crossed the railway line where it crosses the freeway at Yerrinbool – the rail line has been closed. There are reports of ash and smoke are drifting into Mittagong but there is no threat to Mittagong at this stage. 

*The Mount Victoria fire, in the Blue Mountains, is burning near Mount York Road. The fire is being controlled by fire fighters. The fire is burning in the Grose Valley and is approaching the Great Western Highway from the north near Berghoffers Pass. The Great Western Highway will remain open unless affected by fire activity.

8AM UPDATE:

Bad news for fire fighters this morning from the Bureau of Meteorology, with predictions of a heatwave from Sunday to Wednesday. Hopes of a cool change are dashed.

Meanwhile, police have reported this morning that they arrested two girls, aged 12 and 13, at lunchtime on Friday who were allegedly attempting to start a fire in a reserve at Bonnyrigg, west of Sydney.

Officers located a large amount of smoke coming from an area near a duck pond and contained the blaze with three separate fire extinguishers until firefighters arrived at the location.

The girls were interviewed and released into the custody of family members while inquiries continue.

7:30AM UPDATE:

Here's the state of play in a nutshell this morning: firefighters have been building and strengthening containment lines overnight with temperatures across NSW expected to rise this weekend.The fires have left one man dead and authorities warn hundreds of homes have been lost.

More than 1500 firefighters have been on the ground across the state with more than 90 fires scorching through 91,000 hectares and destroying at least 80 homes.The Bureau of Meteorology is predicting the mercury will climb a few degrees today and parts of the state will be in the low 30s tomorrow. Conditions on Sunday are expected to worsen, becoming drier with temperatures in the low 30s.

7PM UPDATE:

Reporter Emma Partridge has just filed this update on the number of homes destroyed in Yellow Rock:

"There are at least 48 properties lost at Yellow Rock, after Fairfax Media drove the length of Singles Ridge, Yellow Rock and Heather Glen Road.

And that's only three streets.

A number of families only pulled into driveways without homes at dusk on Friday.

One woman pulled into a house on Yellow Rock Road and burst into tears when she got out of her car.

There was nothing to see."

Hopes for cooler and wetter conditions early next week to help firefighters battle against bushfires across NSW now look likely to be at least delayed if not dashed, according to our reporter Peter Hannam.

Late on Friday, the Bureau of Meteorology revised its predictions of a cool change by Monday to reach Sydney areas to the west - a region with some of the state's worst blazes.

While Sydney's forecast maximums are little changed, places such as Penrith and Richmond can now expect a four-day spell of 30-plus degrees from Sunday until Wednesday with little rain.

Penrith will probably see the mercury rise to a scorching 38 on Tuesday alone, compared with an earlier forecast of 26.

Sydney itself will see temperatures climb from 24 and 28 on Saturday and Sunday, and reach 31 and 30 on Monday and Tuesday. If accurate, the latter two days will make it six days of 30-plus degree days for October, matching the record tally of 1926 and 1968.

5:45PM UPDATE:

The RFS have completed an initial damage assessment of the Springwood and Winmallee areas, and found 81 properties destroyed and 37 damaged. Those numbers are expected to rise, with about 30 per cent of the fireground inspected.

5:30PM UPDATE:

For the first time in more than 24 hours, there are no emergency warnings listed on the Rural Fire Service website, with all fires at Watch and Act level or lower.

4.47PM UPDATE:

The Springwood fire is still burning through the Blue Mountains and remains at the highest threat level with an emergency warning still in place for it from the NSW Rural Fire Service.

It is now burning in an area surrounding St Columbus School, which was closed on Friday because of the fire threat.

The Bureau of Meteorology has just revised its forecast and its not looking good for the current fire situation. Four days all in the 30s have been forecast for Sydney's west starting Sunday.

The NSW Rural Fire Service has advised that the fire burning at Leppington in Sydney's south-west has been downgraded to the lowest warning level of "advice".

It had been at the highest "emergency level" warning when it broke out only a couple of hours ago.

Road closures in the area have now ended.

 4.10PM UPDATE:

Backup is on the way to help the effort with 200 firefighters coming from interstate, including 130 from Victoria, 51 from South Australia and 20 from Tasmania.

Further reinforcements will be made available if needed, with warm weather likely to pose more problems across NSW on Sunday.

2:50PM UPDATE:

More properties are being lost from the bushfire in the Wyong area on the state's Central Coast.

And the RFS is warning that even more could be lost before the day is out.

"The fire is impacting properties in Chain Valley Bay," the RFS said. "It may soon impact properties in Gwandalan and Summerland Point. There are multiple spot fires along Finlay Avenue and Chain Valley Bay Road."

2:40PM UPDATE:

The Southern rail line is now closed between Picton and Moss Vale after the Balmoral fire began spotting near Yerrinbool. Closure of the Hume Highway is also possible.

2PM UPDATE:

The RFS are continuing property protection along Findlay Avenue at Chain Valley Bay Road as the Wyong fire approaches.  

The Macquarie Lakeside Village caravan park is at the western end of the street. 

Crews are are also protecting Valhalla Village, a retirement village, on Mulloway Road shortly.

There are concerns for more properties along Findlay Avenue including the Macquarie Lakeside Village. 

12:45PM UPDATE:

The Ruttleys Road fire has now been upgraded to an Emergency warning, with properties under threat around Chain Valley Bay Road, including streets off Findlay Avenue, Houston Avenue and Mulloway Road.

Meantime, terrifying video has been posted by Fire and Rescue NSW of the Winmallee fire. In the two-and-a-half minute clip, firefighters pass home after home ablaze.

12.30PM UPDATE:

The Mt Victoria fire has hit the Great Western Highway.

The highway is now closed between Mt York Road and Coxs River Road.

MIDDAY UPDATE:

Mixed news from the state's fire fronts - the Springwood blaze has flared, with people around Chapman Parade and Grose Road warned to be aware of burning embers.

An Emergency Alert telephone warning is being sent to people and homes in the area.

Firefighters have contained the Wandandian fire, in the Shoalhaven, while the Hungerford Creek fire at Muswellbrook poses no immediate threat to properties. Both fires have been downgraded to Advice level.

11:15AM UPDATE:

An update from the Newcastle Herald's Matt Carr on the situation at Port Stephens, where firefighters are trying to contain a blaze that began on Sunday.

"Hundreds of firefighters are trying to put a Port Stephens fire that has devoured more than 3500 hectares "back in the box".

NSW Rural Fire Service Hunter Zone group officer John Ryan confirmed two sheds had been destroyed by fire but most people had been allowed back to their homes.

He said roughly 200 firefighters were taking advantage of "benign conditions" to control the blaze, with many still working since Sunday's Salt Ash inferno.

Firefighters from other areas including the Great Lakes were bolstering the ranks, Mr Ryan said, but Lake Macquarie crews had been forced to race back to their own areas overnight.

"Given the scale of what occurred here yesterday the work that has been put in by the emergency services has been phenomenal," he said.

"They've been flogged to death."

Onlookers and "disaster tourists" have also been urged to stay clear of the area, Mr Ryan said.

Among those with too close a view of the flames was Darren Watkins.

The 40-hectare property he rents with a mate was ringed by fire on Thursday, leaving just a thin line of greenery unblackened.

Mr Watkins said the still-smoking bush land around his house had been almost impenetrable before the flames arrived on dusk.

Flying embers spread the blaze quickly, Mr Watkins said, taking hold in the scrub to form a wider wall of flame.

"You couldn't even contemplate walking through that [bushland before the fire]" he said.

"I couldn't believe how fast it travelled."

Mr Watkins, who operates a welding business, said he would stay to protect his property in case the fire returned.

Thick scrub remains unscathed opposite his property.

"I'd been quoting to do some work for the RFS but I reckon i'll do it for nothing now," Mr Watkins said.

"They did an awesome job.""

10:30AM UPDATE:

Emma Partridge reports from Springwood that residents estimate at least 43 homes have been lost in Thursday's unforgiving blaze.

Sue Dunlop was one of the Buena Vista Street residents who lost her home. She and her husband Phil stayed to protect their home and birds with a garden hose.

"A car explosion blew our windows out and that's when we knew we'd lost the house," Mrs Dunlop said.

As trees and scrub in her backyard continued to burn on Friday, Mrs Dunlop looked at the remains of her house and said there was nothing more she could have done.

"We stayed throughout the whole fire. You fight for your home. We are too old to be starting again."

9:50AM UPDATE:

A man has died while defending his home from the Wyong bushfire at Lake Munmorah on the Central Coast.

The 63-year-old man collapsed at 6.10pm on Thursday and was taken to Wyong Hopsital where he later, the NSW police said.

A post mortem will be carried out to determine how the man died.

This is the first confirmed casualty of Thursday's fires.

9:40AM UPDATE:

VIDEO: Attempting to save friends' homes from uncontrollable bushfires in Winmalee on Thursday night was a 'scary' experience admits firefighter Ben Green.

9:15AM UPDATE:

More photos like this emerging from fire-ravaged areas in the Blue Mountains.

But a little good news for those who have lost homes and property, with a catastrophe declaration from insurers, which will make it easier to claim.

8AM UPDATE:

Although the fire emergency has not yet passed, many are now turning their energies to helping those who have lost so much recover.

7:30AM UPDATE:

There's more than 400km of active fire perimeter in NSW at the moment, according to the RFS. An absolutely huge task ahead of firefighters, with some blazes expected to burn for weeks.

A huge amount of infrastructure has also been damaged or destroyed - many areas are without power at the moment.

7AM UPDATE:

This is what the people of Springwood are waking to this morning, as fires continue to burn in the area.

The latest from the RFS is there are 100 fires burning across the state with 36 still uncontained.

Of those, only the Wyong fire remains at an Emergency warning level, with all others at Watch and Act or lower.

-----------------------------

Hundreds of homes are feared lost as the worst bushfires in more than a decade swept across the state on Thursday.

Premier Barry O'Farrell said: "By the time we've finished counting it  will at least be in the hundreds."

It would take days to fully assess the loss, but the Premier said he was grateful that by late last night no lives had been lost.

"I suspect if we get through that without the loss of life we should all thank God for miracles."

Thousands had been told to evacuate, as the flames surged into populated areas at the foothills of the Blue Mountains, the Southern Highlands, Central Coast, Lithgow, Hunter Valley and Port Stephens.

In Yellow Rock, by the Nepean River on Sydney's western fringe, entire streets of houses were destroyed.

About 100 fires burned across NSW by late afternoon, fanned by hot winds and temperatures in the mid-30s, and 34  still burned uncontained late on Thursday night.

Major roads were cut, including the Hume Highway south of Sydney and the Pacific Highway north of Wyong, stranding thousands of travellers. Lengthy delays are expected on Friday, with some roads and main rail links out of Sydney expected to be cut.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said: "This is as bad as it gets. You're talking people losing everything they own. You're talking key community infrastructure being destroyed by fire today. You're talking massive dislocation to arterial roads and transport corridors. We haven't even taken an assessment yet of the utilities that have been damaged or destroyed. There's talk of water treatment centres, there's talk of power-line infrastructure."

About 1477 firefighters were still working at 9.30pm on Thursday night.

Deputy Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers said the fire situation was the worst he'd seen in more than 10 years and the threat was unlikely to ease for some time.

"It was a very warm winter, a very dry winter ... we're not even one month into spring and we've already got this," he said.

The forecast south-westerly change could  make things worse.

"The worst combination is north-westerly to south-westerly and we've got that now," he said. "We've got an incredibly long fire front and there is no sign of any rain coming."

The catastrophic fire conditions caught authorities by surprise, with the fire danger rated as "severe" rather than "catastrophic" in some areas, Weatherzone said.

At Springwood in the Blue Mountains ferocious winds fanned a blaze that destroyed the "dream home" where Joe Moore, Springwood Country Club's golf professional, had lived with his wife and seven children.

"This reminds me of what happened in Melbourne a couple of years ago," Mr Moore said.

"Whichever way you look, it was the impossible fire to fight."

While easing conditions are expected on Friday, the sheer size of the raging fires meant firefighters didn't "need the weather conditions" to continue.

"They are so big they create their own climatic conditions," Deputy Commissioner Rogers said.

Fires broke out across the state from Lismore and Tenterfield in the north, to Gloucester and Taree and the Great Lakes on the coast, the Blue Mountains, south to Camden, Wingecarribee near Moss Vale and the Shoalhaven.

The fires destroyed homes, pastures and set a petrol station on fire near Wyong.

Roads across the state were closed, with back-ups of up to 20kilometres on the Hume Motorway. 

There were unconfirmed reports of properties being lost at North Doyalson, on the central coast; at Lithgow; at Yanderra and Balmoral, in the southern highlands; and in Port Stephens.

Newcastle airport was closed and evacuated except for a skeleton staff because of a bushfire at Heatherbrae, 16 kilometres away.

Late on Thursday, NSW Emergency Services Minister Mike Gallacher said the situation was  "very tough going indeed".

"You only need to look out into the sky and see the bloom and ash that is hanging over Sydney," he said. "That's coming from the fires burning in the Blue Mountains."

More than 8500 homes in the west, south-west and north of Sydney lost power, as wind gusts of up to 70km/h brought branches down on powerlines.  

In the Blue Mountains, power was cut to about 4500 homes and businesses in Katoomba, Winmalee and parts of Leura, Blackheath and Mount Victoria.  

with AAP

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