New South Wales has declared a week-long state of emergency as the state braces for what the premier, Gladys Berejiklian, has described as “some of the most devastating bushfires we have ever seen”.
Three people have died and at least 150 homes have been destroyed as more than 60 bushfires continue to ravage the mid-north coast of NSW. More than 40 fires are still burning in Queensland.
Almost one million hectares of land have already burned, and with conditions set to worsen on Tuesday the premier warned people to “for heaven’s sake stay away from bushland”.
On Monday, Berejiklian announced a state of emergency on the advice of the commissioner of the rural fire service, Shane Fitzsimmons, after issuing a “catastrophic” fire danger warning for the greater Sydney and Hunter regions.
That warning was later updated to include the Illawarra-Shoalhaven region, with the RFS saying the fire danger on Tuesday “is now expected to be worse than originally forecast”.
It is the first time the warning has been issued in greater Sydney and the first state of emergency since October 2013, when major bushfires killed two people and destroyed hundreds of homes in the state’s Blue Mountains region.
“With catastrophic weather conditions predicted for this week, particularly Tuesday with hot weather and strong winds, I have decided to take the commissioner’s advice and make this declaration,” Berejiklian said.
“Everybody has to assume the worst and we cannot allow complacency to creep in.
“The catastrophic weather conditions mean that things can change very quickly.”
Firefighters are battling up to 60 bushfires from the mid-north coast to the Queensland border. With hot and windy conditions, with temperatures expected to reach the mid-30s on Tuesday, Fitzsimmons advised people near bushland in the warning areas to consider heading towards built-up areas.
“Fires are starting extremely quickly, easily and spreading very, very quickly,” he told reporters.
“The risk is real and the forward spread of those fires is exacerbated by the dryness of that fuel and the ready taking of embers ahead of the main fire front.
“We cannot guarantee a fire truck at every home, we cannot guarantee an aircraft will be overhead every time a fire is impacting on your property, we cannot guarantee that someone will knock on the door and give you a warning that there’s fires nearby, and we certainly cannot guarantee that despite our best efforts the technological tools available will deliver you a message in time.”
Fires tore through the mid-north coast of NSW over the weekend, killing three people and leaving 100 more injured, including 20 firefighters.
Dael Allison, from the tiny NSW town of Bobin, north-west of Taree, said at least a dozen people she knew had lost their homes.
“Bobin is shocking,” she says. “Bobin is devastated. There would be entire hillsides that wouldn’t have a tree standing.”
Allison drove with her partner, Rick Haughton, and son from Port Stephens to Bobin on Sunday to check on friends and on their property, where they grow eucalypts.
The main house is still standing but sheds, the original cottage they built and that their children spent the first years of their lives in, and most of the land are burned out.
“We’ve had fires but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Allison said. “I’ve never seen fires that come right down to the water level of the creek. “I don’t know where fire crews are getting their water from.”
“The whole area is just on fire. At least a dozen people I know have lost houses. That would be nowhere near the final count.”
In Queensland, 47 fires are burning across the state, with firefighters particularly concerned about three areas: Cobraball near Yeppoon, Cooroibah on the Sunshine Coast and Thornton in the Lockyer Valley.
RFS inspector Ben Shepherd warned people outside of the catastrophic fire danger areas that other parts of NSW will still have “severe and extreme” dangers on Tuesday.
“We need to ensure that people understand there is a risk in all bushland areas, stretching from Bega all the way to Byron, from the Victorian border to the Queensland border,” he said.