Major fire threat averted but 'long, tough road ahead'

By Greg Ansley

Defence Department believed to have started massive State Mine blaze

Firefighters mop up and check for reflash after a firestorm swept through a property in Bilpin. Photo / AP
Firefighters mop up and check for reflash after a firestorm swept through a property in Bilpin. Photo / AP

Thousands of firefighters will today continue to hold the line against the fires rampaging to the west and north of Sydney as conditions remain dangerous despite forecasts of falling temperatures and easing winds.

The searing heat of yesterday's northwesterly winds gusting to 80 km/h and mercury readings reaching the high 30s will fall by about 10C, although winds driving a southerly change will still whip across vast firefronts at up to 60 km/h.

But last night firefighters had prevented fronts from forming into what authorities had feared would become a megafire raging down through the Blue Mountains and threatening the outskirts of Sydney.

Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said that as the threat receded, residents who had fled to evacuation centres could return to their homes.

Video

"If you have been someone that has chosen to depart the Blue Mountains today and head to Penrith ... then it would be safe to head back home [last night] because the risk has been averted."

Earlier Fitzsimmons warned of a "long, tough road ahead", lasting well beyond the weeks of battle remaining on the past week's fires.

"With an outlook ahead from the Bureau of Meteorology that simply suggests a continuance of above average temperatures and below average rainfalls, the real challenge is we are likely to be in for a long, hot, drawn-out summer season - which means a long, hot, drawn-out bushfire season."

The insurance bill has now topped A$113 million ($129 million) since last Thursday. More than 200 homes and as much as 150,000ha of land have been destroyed.

Last night the Seven Network reported that the Defence Department had confirmed to the RFS that it started the State Mine fire that has been burning around Lithgow and the Blue Mountains. An RFS spokesman confirmed the report to AAP but Defence said it was under investigation. On Saturday, Defence said it was probing whether the blaze was caused by explosives training which was being carried out on army land at Marrangaroo at the time the fire broke out.

Video

Firefighters had last night slowed the advance of the 1500km front in the Blue Mountains. Conditions had worsened in the afternoon as temperatures and wind strength increased. Lightning strikes from overnight storms sparked new fires as fire danger ratings rose to extreme across Sydney and the Hunter region, with many other regions at high or very high risk. Ember showers pumped by erratic winds triggered a renewed emergency at Springwood and Faulconbridge in the Blue Mountains, again threatening homes and prompting evacuations.

North of Sydney a new fire at Minmi, near Newcastle, rapidly developed into another emergency as flames raced towards homes and closed the M1 motorway. The local public school was evacuated."There's choppers everywhere doing water drops and we're hosing down the pub and things like that," Minmi publican Murray Milne told the ABC. "It's pretty scary actually, and people are running all over town. There's a lot of embers in the air."

An emergency warning was also issued late in the afternoon near Lake Macquarie on NSW's mid-north coast. Authorities warned residents in the towns of Redhead and Dudley to seek shelter. Across NSW more than 3000 firefighters were attacking 71 fires, 29 of them out of control. RFS Volunteers are being backed by about 1000 firefighters from urban stations.

Video

"There are the largest deployment of fire brigade and RFS resources in the Blue Mountains in history," Fire and Rescue Superintendent Alex Smith said.

A further 800 have joined the ranks from other states, based at a tent city at Penrith in Sydney's west. Long convoys of fire trucks and other emergency vehicles snaked into the Blue Mountains, and raced from point to point. In the air 95 aircraft were working to spot and suppress fires.

Help centres were open at Penrith, Springwood and North Richmond. All schools, pre-schools and child care centres across the Blue Mountains and in some other areas were shut.

Telephone alerts

Burning embers were being blown towards homes at Springwood in the Blue Mountains, where an emergency warning was issued. Additional firefighters were sent to the area and residents were being sent telephone alerts. Springwood resident Rae Tebbutt said the atmosphere was tense. "Everyone is terrified. I've got three friends who have lost everything," Tebbutt said. "Our car's packed up. All our photos, personal items, the laptop, documents are all ready to go."

Melting golf clubs

John Joyce has a challenge for his local pro-shop - rebuild his beloved golf clubs which partly melted when flames roared through his Winmalee home. "Only the heads of the clubs survived. The shafts were just liquorice," Joyce said. "I thought of taking them to the pro and saying, 'Can you reshaft these?' as a joke." His wife, Joan, was out on the tennis court the same morning. She had left her racquet on the bed, and when the couple returned to inspect the damage, it disintegrated in her hands. They have lived in the Blue Mountains for 40 years and are adamant they'll rebuild. "This one just came up too fast," Joyce said. The flames were about 10m away from their house and 12m high as they made the dash to the car to drive to safety. There was no time to grab any possessions.

Take the baby and run

Large bushfires burning near her family's timber home have forced Yrsa Forde to grab her baby and bolt for the second time in less than a week. The 31-year-old from Sun Valley, near Springwood in the Blue Mountains, yesterday arrived at an information centre in Penrith for the many who have fled the unprecedented fire danger. "We don't want to take any risks because we've got a baby and animals as well so we can't leave quickly," she said at the Penrith information centre. "We're just going to stay out until it's not likely the fire will come through." When warnings about the blaze were issued last Thursday, Forde packed the car, opened the gates so her horses could leave and headed to her husband's parents' home at Wentworth Falls, further up the Blue Mountains. She had been returning home daily to clear and collect things, but with predictions that fire was likely to threaten her home, she was told to leave yesterday.

Caring for the horses

Penrith man Peter Arentz doesn't have a lot of money to donate to the NSW bushfire victims. But he does have a tipper truck and contacts at a local sawmill. So Arentz spent yesterday delivering timber shavings to use as bedding for the 120 evacuated horses being cared for at the Hawkesbury showgrounds. The horses have been brought in from properties around the Blue Mountains threatened by fire. After working from 5am local time, Arentz jumped in the work truck, and picked up a 15cu m load of timber shavings for the horses.

- additional reporting AAP

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf05 at 20 Dec 2014 10:45:47 Processing Time: 578ms