Australians are waking to one of the bleakest Christmases in years, with hundreds of homes destroyed by bushfires and road closures sending many holiday-makers' travel plans into chaos.
At least nine people have been killed this fire season as various uncontained blazes burn across several states. The NSW Rural Fire Service on Tuesday confirmed 873 homes and 2048 outbuildings have been destroyed, while another 353 homes have been damaged. Those figures are expected to rise significantly with teams still assessing properties believed lost in recent days. A further 100 homes are also believed to have been lost since Thursday, but they're still being assessed due to limited RFS access.
A total of 73 fires were burning throughout the state on Tuesday night, including the huge Gospers Mountain blaze northwest of Sydney, the Green Wattle Creek fire southwest of the city and the Currowan bushfire on the South Coast. Some 28 blazes remain uncontained with more than 2000 firefighters and volunteers working to reduce them.
A 'watch-and-act' alert was issued on Tuesday for the 116,000-hectare Kerry Ridge bushfire in the Wollemi National Park, since downgraded to 'advice' level. Meanwhile, more than 2000 firefighters are making crucial preparations before conditions deteriorate again across NSW this weekend.
RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said there had been a moderation in conditions, an increase in humidity and moisture in the air which suspended backburning operations from about midnight on Monday.
Rain is forecast for coastal NSW north of Newcastle on Christmas Day, while Sydney will have a 50 per cent chance of rain and a maximum of 26C. Easterly winds will also shift the smoke haze blanketing the city.
"There's very extensive backburning that's going on across a number of these key fire grounds, and particularly some backburning that's very close to properties," Fitzsimmons told Sky News on Tuesday.
Crews were busy establishing these lines on Monday night and would resume backburning as soon as the elevated humidity clears, Fitzsimmons said. Warmer and windier conditions are expected into the weekend and early next week. However the RFS isn't expecting a repeat of the kind of fire danger levels seen a few days ago, Fitzsimmons said.
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"We're really trying to consolidate as much as we can, secure protection as best we can ahead of what's expected to be hotter, drier and, this time, a bit more northerly in the winds," he said.
Those northerlies would have the potential to drive the Gospers Mountain and Grose Valley fires down towards the townships of the Blue Mountains along the Great Western Highway.
"So there's a lot of really difficult, challenging, risky work that continues to be going on and will continue to go on over the coming days, right through the Christmas period," Fitzsimmons said.
Meanwhile, many holidaymakers have been left stranded by extensive road closures caused by the bushfires.
Live Traffic NSW said hundreds of kilometres of roads, including major highways and busy arteries, around the state were closed in both directions.
Also in the south-west, a 20-kilometre stretch between Tahmoor and Hill Top — the areas surrounding Balmoral — remained shut on Christmas Eve.
However, there has been some reprieve, with the Princes Highway south of Nowra reopening after being closed in both directions overnight.
In the state's north, the Gwydir Highway has also reopened.
Long-term weather forecasts do not predict significant rainfall until January or February.
The federal government, meanwhile, has announced Commonwealth public service volunteers will get at least four weeks paid leave to fight bushfires under a plan to get more "boots on the ground".
Prime Minister Scott Morrison called on big business to follow suit. "What this will mean, as a big employer, on top of what is done by the defence forces and some of the other agencies, is this will enable them to be able to commit more time in their brigades and relieve particularly those in small and regional towns," Morrison told reporters.
"We're seeking to be a model employer about how we do this." Morrison also admitted a longer Australian fire season and overlapping periods of major fire danger for states may require policy change, but said "social media is not going to set government policy".
"The longer-term planning and the longer-term policies … that's what you do in the sober light of day post-event," Morrison said.
In South Australia, firefighters across the Adelaide Hills will use Christmas Day to try to bring a devastating bushfire under control.
Slightly milder conditions on Wednesday and on Boxing Day will give the Country Fire Service some chance of bringing the 25,000-hectare blaze fully to heel ahead of the looming deterioration in conditions.
A return to very hot weather with the mercury topping 40C has been forecast for the weekend, together with rising winds, that will have authorities on edge. CFS Chief Officer Mark Jones said as the work continued to bring the fire under control, he was inspired by the efforts of his volunteers.
"You selflessly give your time, time away from your family, and you endure financial losses to put yourself in harm's way to protect the community," he said.
Jones said about 200 firefighters would remain on the ground in the Hills on Wednesday and all those at home would be ready to spring into action. "Fires don't discriminate whether it's Christmas Day or not and our firefighters don't discriminate either," he said.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison toured areas hard hit by the fire, visiting the Lobethal emergency relief centre, a CFS brigade at Woodside and a local winery, which lost its 10-hectare vineyard.
He said in almost every case, the people devastated by the fire had worked so incredibly hard to build up what was there.
"They're very determined people and my encouragement to them today is to access the help that is available," he said.
"No one is invincible. No one can carry all of this on their own."
A watch and act warning remains in place for the Adelaide Hills fire, which has destroyed 84 homes and hundreds of other buildings as well as claiming one life.
So far, about 40,000 hectares have been burnt across the state.
Agricultural losses are also growing, with about 1100 hectares of vineyards thought destroyed or damaged, equal to about one-third of the area's grape production, while cherry farmers were hard hit.
Suppression activities, blacking out and patrolling were conducted on Tuesday as crews race to combat more extreme fire weather later this week. "