Australia — New South Wales is in the grip of its most serious bushfire crisis in over a decade and the emergency is far from over.
Dozens of homes are destroyed as out-of-control blazes rage to Sydneys north and south and in the Blue Mountains.
Dangerous weather conditions fan the destructive flames and there are heartbreaking scenes as residents watch their properties go up.
NSW firefighters are entering a critical period as a change sweeps the greater Sydney area, where several properties have been lost to bushfires.
‘As bad as it gets’
While the extent of the devastation was unclear on Thursday night, one of the worst-hit areas was Springwood, in the Blue Mountains, where up to 30 homes were known to be lost.
Elsewhere, thousands of firefighters were struggling against around 100 blazes across the state – on the central coast and further north, the Southern Highlands and the south coast.
Premier Barry O’Farrell and Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters the public should brace for widespread destruction.
“It will take some days until we see the end of these fires,” Mr O’Farrell warned.
“I suspect that if we get through that without the loss of life we should thank God for miracles.”
Mr Fitzsimmons said firefighters faced the worst of conditions.
“This is as bad as it gets,” he said.
It was too soon to estimate how many properties had been lost, but he predicted: “we’ll be counting properties in the dozens, if not the hundreds.”
For most of the day there were six fires at “emergency warning” level, meaning homes were at risk and residents were being asked to consider fleeing.
Before 6pm, a cool change brought temperatures down from the mid-30s to the mid-teens.
But it also created new chaos, swinging fire fronts around and pushing blazes into new areas.
There were unconfirmed reports of properties being lost at North Doyalson, on the Central Coast; at Lithgow; at Yanderra and Balmoral, in the Southern Highlands; and in Port Stephens, where a fire is burning near Newcastle Airport, which has been closed.
Rural Fire Service spokesman Anthony Clark told AAP there had been reports of a “couple of homes” destroyed at Springwood and Winmalee in the Blue Mountains.
The fire had run downhill toward Penrith.
Firefighters had their eye on the weather, as a change that followed the 34-plus degree day gusted winds up to 90km/h.
“As that change comes through we’re going to see fires burning on new fronts and communities to the north of these fires can expect to see a lot of fire, a lot of smoke,” he said.
“We have got numerous homes which have been destroyed this afternoon.
“We simply don’t have a number at this stage.”
Mr Clark said it was a critical time.
“The key thing is with that change coming through, (these are) really dangerous conditions for the next couple of hours,” he said.
Police advise the fast-moving Springwood bushfire is also affecting areas around Winmalee, Yellow Rock, Mt Riverview and Emu Heights.
It is understood the fire has jumped the Nepean River and is burning in Castlereagh, in the Penrith area.
All roads around St Columba’s Springwood are closed, but police say all students are safe and sheltering in the school hall.
Students from St Thomas Aquinas Primary students have been evacuated to Winmalee Shopping Centre.
With multiple fires in the area, police ask the public to postpone non-essential travel in order to keep the roads clear for firefighters.
Residents in the Springwood, Yellow Rock, Winmalee, Emu Heights, Mt Riverview and Castlereagh areas should take shelter and protect themselves from the radiant heat.
RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said it had been a nightmare day.
“It’s probably the most serious fire risk we’ve faced since the early 2000s,” he said.
“… If we come out of this day without losing hundreds of homes we’ll be very lucky.”
He said some firefighters have suffered injuries, including one with burns.
There are also unconfirmed reports of properties being lost at Lithgow, at Yanderra and Balmoral in the Southern Highlands, and in Port Stephens, where a fire is burning near Newcastle Airport.
Elsewhere in NSW, fires of grave concern to authorities are burning at Leppington, near Camden, west of Sydney, at Wyong on the Central Coast, at South Nowra on the south coast, and at Muswellbrook in the Hunter Valley.
Motorists urged to stay off roads
Bushfires surrounding Sydney have created a traffic nightmare, with even city commuters advised to reconsider their plans.
Transport authorities have warned bushfires are affecting major roads around Sydney, with only the Great Western Highway open to take Blue Mountains residents in and out.
The Pacific Highway between Lake Munmorah and Swansea was closed as was the Hume Highway between Mittagong and Wilton as of 7pm (AEDT).
Premier Barry O’Farrell told media there were reports of a 20km traffic queue leading into Sydney on the Hume Highway.
Efforts were being made to deliver water to those stuck on the highway, he added.
A Transport Management Centre spokeswoman said if motorists did not need to be on the roads they should look at other options, including staying in the city.
RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons also asked motorists to avoid going into areas where fire trucks needed access.
“If you don’t need to be anywhere near these things, for goodness sake stay away,” he said.
“You’re not welcome, you’re not necessary and all you do is clog the access and egress for those affected by these fires and the emergency workers and firefighters that are trying to get in.”
The rail network is also disrupted with buses replacing trains on Blue Mountain lines.