Rescue teams were late yesterday trying to reach a crashed waterbomber that sparked a new blaze in remote bushland south of Sydney, as the major State Mine fire strengthened again and an emergency warning was issued.
Swamped by thousands of firefighters, helicopters, fixed-wing aircraft, hundreds of fire tankers, bulldozers and sophisticated computer data, the key fronts in the Blue Mountains, Mt Victoria and Lithgow were mostly held at bay.
While cooler southerly conditions and abating winds helped firefighters gain the upper hand, the biggest fires remain dangerous and join more than 60 others burning across New South Wales - 24 of them still out of control. The State Mine fire at Lithgow intensified last night.
Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons earlier warned against complacency as he pulled units back and sent teams from other states back home. "We do need to be crystal clear here there is still a lot of fire across the Blue Mountains area that is very active," he said.
The crash of the waterbomber yesterday morning in rugged country 40km west of Ulladulla, on NSW's south coast, is the most serious firefighting incident since the death of a 63-year-old man defending his home last week.
The aircraft had been fighting fires in the Shoalhaven area, and authorities said the pilot had been killed, as other waterbombers flew in to suppress the fire the crash had started. Efforts to winch down rescue teams were frustrated by strong winds and smoke."As soon as conditions are in our favour we will retrieve that body," Shoalhaven Area commander Superintendent Joe Cassar said.
The pilot was named in Australian media reports as David Black, 43, a father of three from Trangie in NSW.
"It's a tragedy for the firefighting community but first and foremost it's a tragedy for this man's family," Fitzsimmons said. "He's a husband with young children and we're all acutely aware that there's a family suffering today because their dad didn't come home."
As the crisis eased around Sydney authorities were assessing a toll that insurers put at more than A$130 million ($149 million). As well as 208 houses and dozens of businesses and other buildings destroyed, the fires have hit power and water supplies, damaged roads and rail lines, burnt through huge tracts of country, razed fences and hammered other infrastructure.
But the scale and skill of the response prevented far greater losses of life and property in the state's worst bushfire emergency in half a century. It was so successful that Fitzsimmons has been questioned over the extreme measures taken and his warnings of a potential megafire that could have swept from the mountains to Sydney's doorsteps.
"I would much rather be sitting here today copping criticism no matter how invalid I think they are, for doing what we thought was the right thing," he said. "You cannot ignore the gravity of what was presented."
Fitzsimmons hurled 3000 firefighters, more than 90 aircraft and hundreds of vehicles at the crisis, drafting in 1000 urban firefighters and 800 from other states. The strategies he used were often high-risk, developed after years of bushfire emergencies across the nation. Every major disaster is minutely examined by fire authorities, scientists and governments to determine what worked and what failed.
Research is co-ordinated and dispensed nationally. Detailed management plans and strategies are constantly refined, linking fire authorities to land managers, local, state and federal governments and other emergency and relief organisations.
Fitzsimmons tied this knowledge to technology identifying and tracking outbreaks and fire teams, analysing local terrain such as gullies and valleys and their likely effect on fire behaviour, and sophisticated communication networks.Warnings and updates were sent to communities potentially at risk through SMS, email, Twitter, the internet, radio and television.
The present fires are expected to burn for weeks.
Temperatures will start rising again next week, and the Bureau of Meteorology says there is a 60 per cent chance of a hotter-than-usual summer over the southeast. Fitzsimmons muted criticism of the Defence Force for starting the big Lithgow fire through live ordinance exercises, saying it had not been deliberate. Most other fires were started by power lines. Seven children were caught allegedly lighting fires.
- additional reporting AAP