“IT’S time to leave. You need to evacuate now.”
That was the dire warning to Richmond Vale woman Lorraine Moss, who had been held at bay in her front yard, refusing to leave her two horses behind as fire threatened her property.
“I don’t leave without them,” she told Fairfax Media in a dramatic few moments on Wednesday afternoon. “Where would I go?”
In the end, the horses decided for her.
A helicopter that landed nearby spooked them to the point they crashed through the front gate, rearing up until they were calmed by their owner and walked away from the danger zone down Richmond Vale Road, which at this stage was covered in an eddying smoke.
Ms Moss, like dozens of other residents in Richmond Vale and Black Hill, were lucky.
They escaped danger.
But Wednesday’s 800-hectare fire, which was fanned by erratic winds in an area that some residents say is the driest it has been in 15 years, showed no mercy on others.
The Richmond Vale Rail Museum, on Leggetts Drive, was undoubtedly the hardest hit.
Volunteers were visibly upset when they arrived at the site, parts of which were still on fire, about 1pm.
The museum’s chairman, Peter Meddows, estimated the damage bill would run in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
The museum holds key items belonging to the Lower Hunter’s rich industrial history, but many of those rail relics – including whole carriages, wagons and a kilometre worth of track – are expected to be written off after fire tore through the back of the site in the early morning.
“It breaks your heart,” Mr Meddows said.
“The sheer amount of work that goes into this place, and it’s just gone up in smoke from some idiot.
“It’s the worst we’ve seen since ’94.”
Mr Meddows was furious at reports that the Richmond Vale blaze initially started as deliberately-lit car fire.
"When you see this, you get pissed off because it all could have been avoided,” he said. “That's what upsets you.”
As the fire showed no sign of letting up in some pockets of Richmond Vale, residents who lived outside the danger zone went from property to property to help their neighbours move livestock.
One woman, who only gave her name as Tammy, said it was what good neighbours do.
“There’s a lot of horses in this area and people need help in situations like this,” she said.
Another resident said it was the driest the area had been in years.
“We get fires – we’re used to them, but rarely do they come this early in the year. Look at this, it’s madness,” he said.
Firefighters gained the upper hand on the Richmond Vale inferno about 3pm, downgrading its severity from “emergency” to “watch and act”.
The Black Hill blaze was downgraded about an hour earlier.
Water-bombing aircraft, including the Rural Fire Service’s tanker Thor, attacked the fire in remote bushland until dusk.
And firefighters remained on the ground until well into the night, guarding homes against flare-ups brought about by wind conditions that proved a consistent challenge.
Intense fire a sign of what’s to come
AUTHORITIES have warned that a fire that raged uncontrolled on Wednesday is just the beginning, sending an ominous signal ahead of the Hunter’s official bushfire season.
Residents in fire-prone areas – particularly in Coalfields towns – are being told that they need to be ready from now until summer and that indifference could be deadly.
It comes as investigators work to determine a cause for the Richmond Vale fire, which spread to 800 hectares by Wednesday afternoon, but it is widely believed to have started from a car fire which was reported to emergency services on Tuesday.
The Black Hill fire, which forced nearby Black Hill Primary School to evacuate, is also under investigation.
And firefighters are not taking any chances as the blaze enters its third day, declaring a “section 44” emergency, which allows firefighters to draw resources from elsewhere in the state.
Rural Fire Service Lower Hunter spokesman Stuart O’Keefe said while the worst of the danger was over, firefighters were cautious of forecast wind speeds between 30 and 35km/h on Thursday.
“Although the worst of the conditions have abated, it will still be a challenge,” Mr O’Keefe told Fairfax. “Those winds are still going to contribute to fire activity and we need to be wary of that.”
Nearly 200 firefighters, assisted by multiple water-bombing aircraft, attacked the blaze for several hours on Wednesday, seemingly against the forces of nature.
A “perfect storm” of fire conditions – hot weather, fast winds and low humidity – all prevailed.
“All it needed was an ignition,” Mr O’Keefe said.
“The wind was definitely the worst factor in all of that – the wind was our difficulty.
“And unfortunately, this is a prelude to what we may expect in the coming weeks and months.”
Mr O’Keefe could not say what the extent of the damage was, with investigators still to comb over the fire ground, which is made up of bushland and small residential landholdings.
However, there had been no reports of livestock loss, though the RSPCA was on scene on Wednesday in case the Department of Primary Industries activated a response.
Residents, already wary series of deliberately-lit blazes that wreaked havoc last bushfire season, have their eye on summer.
“It is worrying that it is so early in the year, but hopefully it will mean it is not going to be such a threat later on,” Kristen Boyle said.
“It does make you worried,” said another.
The Hunter’s bushfire season traditionally starts in October, but has been brought forward by a month due to a dry winter. Fairfax has previously reported that Hunter firefighters were facing the worst fire conditions in a decade.
Mr O’Keefe urged residents to be vigilant.
“The message is: prepare, prepare, prepare,” he said. “Get your bushfire survival plans in place and be ready.”