Australians still in the path of forest fires 140 kilometres west of Sydney were told on Saturday it was too late to be evacuated and they should take whatever shelter they could find.
Lithgow, at the foot of the Blue Mountains in the south-eastern region, had lost nearly 200 homes in the firestorm that swept through Thursday.
The blaze is the latest of dozens in an emergency that Rural Fire Service (RFS) commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned could last “weeks, not days.”
Thousands of volunteers have been drafted to battle blazes that have blackened around 100,000 hectares and cost one life.
Walter Linder, 63, died of a suspected heart attack as he defended his home from the flames.
“I’ve had no advice of others missing or feared dead,” Fitzsimmons said. “Looking at the damage and destruction across these areas, we’re expecting numbers to be in the hundreds when it comes to homes and buildings and infrastructure, and we simply can’t ignore the reality that there may be people still within their homes that may not have gotten out.”
A change in the weather saw temperatures and winds subside, giving crews backed by water-bombing aircraft a chance to contain the fire by controlled burns ahead of the front.
Fire conditions were described on Thursday as the “worst in a decade” in the south-east, with strong winds, high temperatures and tinder-dry woodland.
Phil Koperberg, a former RFS commissioner, was appointed to lead a Blue Mountains recovery team. He said there had been worse fires in the region in the 1950s and ’60s, but it was unprecedented at the October start of the southern hemisphere summer.
“We’ve always had fires but not of this nature and not at this time of year and not accompanied by the record-breaking heat we’ve had,” he told The Australian newspaper, characterizing the development as a “feature of a slowly evolving climate.”
Almost 200 homes destroyed in fires in Australia
The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) says 193 homes have been destroyed and 109 damaged in the fierce bushfires that have affected the state’s Blue Mountains since Thursday.
Firefighters have been making the most of cooler weather overnight to work on containment lines around six major bushfires in New South Wales before conditions worsen in the coming days.
One of the worst affected areas was around Springwood and Winmalee in the Lower Blue Mountains.
The RFS says it has inspected about 95 per cent of the Springwood fire ground – where the 193 homes were lost – although it says that figure may change.
One man died trying to protect his home from a fire than burnt from Doyalson to Catherine Hill Bay, at Lake Macquarie.
Watch and act warnings remain in place for fires in the Southern Highlands, Wyong, Mount Victoria, Lithgow, Heatherbrae and Springwood in the Blue Mountains.
Around 190 firefighters are working to contain the Springwood fire which is still burning out of control.
Australian bushfires claim their first life
Australians were warned Friday that the worst forest fires in a decade were likely to claim more lives after a 63-year-old man who suffered a heart attack while trying to defend his home became the first reported victim.
Bushland is still blazing in the south-east after scorching heat and strong winds whipped up a conflagration that burned through 50,000 hectares and had a perimeter of 400 kilometers.
Over 100 houses were feared destroyed in Thursday’s inferno, with the most serious losses in the Blue Mountains 70 kilometres west of Sydney.
Mike Gallacher, the emergency services minister in the New South Wales state government, said the bodies of those who tried to outrun the flames may be found in burned-out vehicles.
Flames ring Sydney as forest fire season starts
A pink haze hung over Sydney on Thursday as bushland blazed on all three flanks of Australia’s biggest city at the start of the annual forest fire season.
Strong winds and temperatures of 34 degrees in south-eastern Australia saw officials ban the lighting of fires outdoors and urge residents to prepare rural properties for “ember attacks,” when embers from a fire are carried by winds.
“The sky’s very dark, with the sun burning orange through the dark smoke,” a resident told national broadcaster ABC as more than 100 mostly volunteer firefighters tried to hold back a blaze at Springwood, in the Blue Mountains 70 kilometres west of Sydney.
In Newcastle, 170 kilometres north of Sydney, a plume of smoke closed the airport.
Residents of Balmoral, 120 kilometres south of Sydney, were urged to pack up and leave after reports of a house being razed and 20 more under threat.
Fire-fighting aircraft were grounded because it was not safe to fly due to high winds and low visibility.
Rural Fire Service spokesman Joel Kursawe told reporters that winds of up to 80 kilometres per hour were capable of carrying burning embers over 6 kilometres.
Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers tweeted: “Residents please take extreme care. Very serious danger to life today.”
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