More than 850,000 hectares of land in New South Wales have been razed since the start of this year’s unprecedented bushfire season — the equivalent to more than 1 million rugby league pitches.
- More than 850,000 hectares in NSW have been destroyed since the start of the bushfire season
- A catastrophic warning is in place for Greater Sydney and the Greater Hunter on Tuesday, with authorities saying conditions will be “as bad as it gets”
- People are being advised to plan now and leave avoid bushfire-prone areas
The NSW Rural Fire Service (RFS) confirmed the extent of the damage to date, ahead of a warning about “catastrophic” conditions facing Greater Sydney and the Greater Hunter areas on Tuesday.
It’s the first time the Sydney region, including the Blue Mountains and Central Coast, has faced a catastrophic warning in the 10-year history of fire danger ratings.
Hot, windy conditions are forecast to stoke more devastation, with temperatures set to soar into the mid-30s.
Anthony Clark from the RFS has warned the coming conditions will be “as bad as it gets”, as firefighters continue to battle the deadly epidemic of fires over recent days that killed three people and destroyed at least 150 homes.
About 60 fires continued to burn as of Sunday night, but all were downgraded from emergency level as conditions eased.
“There’s a lot of hard work ahead of us, but the simple message is we’re not going to get on top of those fires before these really bad conditions hit on Tuesday,” Mr Clark said.
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People in bushfire-risk areas have been warned to start thinking now about a survival plan and head to larger towns and built-up areas.
A total fire ban is in place statewide for Monday and Tuesday and schools have been closed.
Firefighters continued to work around the clock, with reinforcements from interstate and New Zealand, but Mr Clark said the message was that conditions on Tuesday will be “very, very dangerous, and if you need help, we may not be able to get it to you.”
Early signs of carnage
At the end of August, the RFS brought forward by a month the start of the bushfire danger period for more than 70 local government areas, as a precaution against the looming warm, dry conditions.
Within a week, homes were lost as fires tore into communities across the state with northern NSW near Tenterfield among the worst-hit.
At the time, RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said it was an indication of the severity of the coming bushfire season.
“It is a sobering reminder of what is ahead, with the outlook indicating the next three or four months is dominated by above-average temperatures, below-average rainfall and unfortunately there is no meaningful signal anywhere for drought-breaking, relieving rain,” he said.
Last month, two people died as fires again tore through northern NSW, with 45 homes destroyed in the onslaught, before the latest statewide crisis hit last week with an unprecedented 17 fires at emergency level on Friday.
Community faces anxious wait to get home
One of the communities worst hit by last week’s outbreak of fires was the small town of Wytaliba, near Glenn Innes in the state’s north.
Richard and Katie Taylor, with their children Madeline, Grace and Gus (L to R), were anxious to get home. (ABC News: Paige Cockburn )
On Sunday, many residents spent the day waiting at a roadblock in hope of reconnecting with loved ones who had been trapped inside the devastated community after it became too late to leave.
For Richard and Katie Taylor, who own a now-charred cattle property just outside of Wytaliba, the lock-out was worrying as it meant their cattle had to wait even longer for food and water.
“This is just another little challenge we have to deal with,” Mr Taylor said.
Fire continued to burn in the remote area, making it still too dangerous to re-open the roads.
Two people from the area, George Nole and Vivien Chapman, died when the massive inferno ripped through.
Almost all properties are expected to have been destroyed.
A local police officer at the roadblock told the ABC that what he had seen inside the community was too confronting to speak about.
Long-time Wytaliba resident Danielle Monks waited at the closed road for eight hours on Sunday, desperate to deliver food and water to those who were stuck inside, including her husband and daughter.
“They haven’t eaten properly since Friday … the snacks have all run out,” she said.
Danielle Monks waited for eight hours with her children at the roadblock to Wytaliba. (ABC News: Paige Cockburn)
The Taylors’ house was fortunately spared, which they owe to their neighbour who cut a fire break around their home when he realised they would not make it back in time to begin property protection.
“It was really good country spirit … the way things should be,” Mr Taylor said.
A fire break was even dug around a cow who had just given birth on the Taylor property, which ensured the animals’ survival as the blaze swept around them.
The cause of the Wytablia fire is under investigation.