Dozens of homes are under threat as New South Wales firefighters battle more than 130 blazes in 40-plus temperatures and ‘‘catastrophic’’ conditions.
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But although 40 fires remained uncontained, by mid-afternoon on Tuesday there had been no reports of loss of life or homes as residents heeded dire warnings from authorities.
‘‘We have been very fortunate,’’ said Rural Fire Services (RFS) Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons, who praised the ‘‘extraordinary’’ firefighting effort taking place in ‘‘dirty, hot difficult conditions’’.
Hundreds of firefighters were in the field, with thousands more on standby, as temperatures climbed and the fires, fanned by winds over 70 km/h, burned more than 26,000 hectares of grass, scrub and bushland.
Up to 90 per cent of NSW was in severe danger, with conditions officially described as catastrophic in the Illawarra, Shoalhaven, the Southern Ranges, the northern and eastern Riverina and southern parts of the lower Central West Plains.
NSW Emergency Services Minister Mike Gallacher said the extreme weather — predicted to create one of the worst fire danger days in NSW history — had started ‘‘to play out’’.
‘‘There was a hope that something would abate this weather condition as it moves across NSW, but the fact is that it has not,’’ he told reporters in Sydney.
Australian fire authorities have called for rural fire fighting support from New Zealand with two crews expected to leave tomorrow.
A total fire ban is in place across NSW, with temperatures predicted to hit 45 degrees in the state’s far west and 43 degrees in Sydney — the third highest mark on record.
All NSW national parks, reserves and state forests are closed to the public due to the fire risk, while the total fire ban has been extended into Wednesday.
*Follow latest temperatures in Sydney here, see map of fire incidents below.
HOMES UNDER THREAT
New South Wales’ worst fires are in the south of the state, near Cooma, Nowra, Bega and Wagga.
Thirty homes were threatened by a fire 12km east of Cooma — 20 in the Kybeyan Valley and 10 around Mount Forest Road in the Cooma-Monaro area.
A fire on the south coast at Brogo, near Bega, was expected to affect isolated properties north of Eagles Nest Road.
There has been some respite in the Bega area, after temperatures eased to the mid-20s following a southerly wind change just after 2pm (4pm NZT).
An emergency bushfire warning was issued for the township of Tarcutta, in southwest NSW, where the fire front was about 3km from properties shortly before 1pm.
Residents were being urged to ‘‘shelter in place’’ as it approached, as it was too late to leave, and parts of the Hume Highway were closed.
Fitzsimmons said it was a long day for the thousands of firefighters in NSW.
"Right across the state we are seeing fires breaching some of their containment lines, and we've also got fire agencies identifying new fires that are starting up under these hot, dry conditions," he told reporters.
"We've got a lot of daylight left and a lot of night-time left under these conditions.
"The front that's moving through NSW is not expected to pass through some of our worst areas until much later tonight."
Firefighters were being assisted by waterbombing aircraft.
Bega Valley Shire Council general manager Peter Tegart said "huge billowing smoke" could be seen from a fire at Brogo. He said Bega was also copping smoke from fires in the Cooma-Monaro area.
Tegart said the high school in Bega could serve as an evacuation centre for Brogo evacuees, while council bulldozers, graders, clean-up crews and other resources would be deployed if needed.
TEENS ARRESTED OVER SUSPICIOUS BLAZE
Three youths are in police custody after a suspicious fire in Sydney’s west.
Firefighters have contained the blaze in Shalvey, near Blacktown, which affected about 10 hectares of bushland on Tuesday, a RFS spokesman said.
The three youths were taken into custody on Tuesday afternoon and are helping police with their inquiries.The spokesman said authorities suspect it was deliberately lit because it sparked from multiple ignition points.
About 15 RFS fire trucks battled the blaze, which was eventually brought under control after two and a half hours.
‘DOME OF HEAT’ OVER SOUTHEAST AUSTRALIA
Bega was the first town in NSW to pass 40 degrees C this morning, and Australia braced for a "dome of heat" which is settling in over NSW and Victoria.
The mercury in Bega, on the NSW south coast, jumped from 22.9 degrees at 8am to just over 37 degrees an hour later, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
Julie Evans, from the Bureau of Meteorology, said it was a record. "It's never been that hot, that early, in Bega," she said.
"The last time it was that hot in the morning in Bega was in 1973, with 36.2 degrees at 9am."
The hottest place in NSW (as recorded by the Bureau of Meteorology) was Fowlers Gap, near Broken Hill in the state's far west, which recorded 44.2C at 2pm (4pm NZT). Sydney had reached 40 degrees by early afternoon.
A cool change had dropped temperatures dramatically on the far south coast of NSW later in the afternoon. At Merimbula, the temperature dropped from a near-record January high of 41.1 degrees at 1.07pm (3.07pm NZT) to 24.1 degrees as an east-southeast change brought welcome relief.
The change was moving north up the coast and expected to reach Sydney before midnight.
The Australian Bureau of Meteorology has added extra colours to its temperature scale for the next week, lifting it to 54 degrees.
That was well above the all-time record temperature of 50.7 degrees reached on January 2, 1960 at Oodnadatta Airport in South Australia - and the forecast outlook is starting to deploy the new colours.
While recent days have seen Australian temperature maps displaying maximums ranging from 40 degrees to 48 degrees - depicted in the colour scheme as burnt orange to black - both next Sunday and Monday are now showing regions likely to hit 50 degrees or more, coloured purple.
"The scale has just been increased today and I would anticipate it is because the forecast coming from the bureau's model is showing temperatures in excess of 50 degrees," said David Jones, head of the bureau's climate monitoring and prediction unit.
HELP TO BE SENT BY NEW ZEALAND
National rural fire officer Murray Dudfield said the two New Zealand crews would be deployed to Tasmania, but he expected the request to be extended to NSW.
He received a call for assistance late last night.
"The Tasmanian fire agencies together with the Department of Parks and Wildlife and the Tasmanian Forestry Commission have requested that we provide two remote firefighter crews which we will be agreeing too," Dudfield said.
Dudfield said the crews would come from areas such as Northland, where there had been a higher rainfall recently.
"In those places that have had a lot of rain, there would be no problem with pulling resources from there for a 16-day period."
Residents on a southern Tasmanian peninsula have been urged to seek refuge ahead of a renewed bushfire threat across the region.
The region has largely been isolated by road since last week but volunteers, charities and emergency services have been bringing supplies in - and evacuating people - by boat and ferry.
Tasmanian Fire Service senior station officer Phil Douglas said around 40 bushfires were burning with concerns also held for out-of-control bushfires at Lake Repulse, north of Hobart.
He said strong wind gusts between 30 and 70kmh were expected to sweep across early this afternoon causing concern for communities north of any active fires.
Map of current incidents from the NSW Rural Fire Service:
- Fairfax and AAP