Thousands of firefighters are bracing for what is expected to be the worst day of the bushfire crisis in New South Wales as temperatures soar and searing winds return.
Rural Fire Service volunteers have been bolstered by 800 firefighters from other states and 1000 more drafted from the Fire and Rescue Service, which staffs the state's urban stations. RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has also mobilised about 90 aircraft, including two giant Erikson Air-Cranes flown in from Greece. Most are operating above the vast firefronts in the Blue Mountains.
He said forecasters were predicting even worse conditions than previously expected with higher temperatures and winds gusting up to 100km/h. "It is going to be a difficult and challenging day. My principal focus is saving lives."
Temperatures are now predicted to reach between the mid- and high 30s, with humidity plummeting to 10 per cent or more. The fire danger is likely to become extreme - the second-highest rating - through the Blue Mountains, the Hawkesbury region, the Southern Highlands and much of Sydney.
"The forecast and scenario for tomorrow is about as bad as it gets," Fitzsimmons said.
All schools, pre-schools and child care centres in the Blue Mountains are closed today, and parents have been urged to keep their children close in case they need to flee. Patients were also evacuated yesterday from a nursing home in Springwood.
Crews were making the most of milder conditions to strengthen lines against fires threatening towns across the region and the northwestern outskirts of Sydney. There was a risk they could be forced back by late storms, with forecasts of lightning and strong winds potentially setting back efforts to form defences for today's expected onslaught.
"That then translates to very dangerous, very difficult fire behaviour and fire-fighting conditions," Fitzsimmons said. "We have issued warnings to firefighters in the field, especially in the more rugged, inaccessible country."
Since last Thursday the fires have consumed 208 houses and 40 businesses and other buildings. More than 100,000ha have been razed by outbreaks driving their perimeter out to 1600km. Damage to rails has shut train services between Bathurst, Lithgow and Mt Victoria, to Sydney's west.
Five children have been charged with setting separate fires. Preliminary investigations have also blamed powerlines for causing fires at Springwood and Mt Victoria, and Port Stephens northeast of Sydney.
Smatterings of rain yesterday did nothing to lower the danger. A state of emergency continues across NSW, although no emergency warnings were in force late yesterday for the fires raging to the west of Sydney.
Fitzsimmons, at 44 the youngest RFS chief, has been using radical and high-risk strategies to hold back the flames roaring through forest and heavily-wooded, often almost inaccessible valleys and gullies. He has winched in specially-trained remote area teams from helicopters, equipped with chainsaws, axes and grubbing equipment for back-breaking and dangerous work in the most isolated areas.
Helicopters, including night-rated choppers, are on 24-hour standby to haul them to safety if the flames threaten their survival. Refuge areas have been prepared for other crews caught by rapid, deadly changes in fire direction. Fitzsimmons has also used backburning - setting controlled fires ahead of the main fronts to starve them of fuel - despite dangerous conditions.
Faced with the inevitable linking of two major fires near Lithgow, on the Central Tablelands 150km west of Sydney and Mt Victoria in the Blue Mountains, crews were working to join the two by backburning to better manage a vast front that would otherwise have merged unpredictably under its own force. Fitzsimmons said this tactic had greatly reduced earlier fears of three fronts uniting .
At the same time, Fitzsimmons has been managing an operation of enormous complexity, linking crews on the ground with satellite and aerial reconnaissance, and moving main units, strike crews, reserves and aircraft around a giant, lethal chessboard. He has also overseen the co-ordination of other emergency services and local councils, the integration of crews drafted in from across Australia - including accommodation and food - and the evacuation and housing of thousands of people.
Fitzsimmons became a volunteer at 15, joined the staff in 1994, and was assistant commissioner for operations during some of the state's worst bushfires in the first two summers of the new century.
Major fire hotspots
*State Mine Fire, Lithgow: Watch and act alert after fire was deliberately merged with a blaze nearby at Mt Victoria. 1000 firefighters involved.
*Springwood/Faulconbridge: Watch and act alert for 3193ha fire burning out of control.
*Balmoral, Southern Highlands: Watch and act alert for 15,292ha fire burning near Yerrinbool, Balmoral, Yanderra, Pheasants Nest, Wilton, Bargo. 200 firefighters involved
*Storm cell hit Blue Mountains yesterday afternoon.
*Government activates new income assistance allowance.
*Second boy, aged 14, charged with lighting a large fire near Newcastle.
*All schools, child care centres and pre-schools closed in the Blue Mountains.
*Insurance Council of Australia says about 900 claims worth over A$100 million ($114m) lodged.
Main firefighting resources
*Victoria: 59,000 volunteers, 1650 paid staff, 1222 brigades, 4000 vehicles.
*NSW: 70,200 volunteers, 920 paid staff, 2036 brigades, 4200 vehicles.
*Queensland: 36,000 volunteers, 4200 full-time and auxiliary staff, 1500 brigades.
*South Australia: 15,500 volunteers, 110 paid staff, 434 brigades, 900 vehicles.
*Tasmania: 4800 volunteers, 250 paid staff, 230 brigades, 450 vehicles.
*WA: 30,000 volunteers and 1420 career firefighters, 800 brigades