A cloud of smoke from bushfires covers Sydney.
One man has died and authorities fear more fatalities will be discovered in the hundreds of homes destroyed by some of the most destructive bushfires NSW has seen.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says the fight to get the blazes under control on Friday is far from over, with 94 fires burning across the state – 27 of which are uncontained.
A 63-year-old man died defending his house at Lake Munmorah on the NSW central coast, while the Blue Mountains, Lithgow and the Southern Highlands are also under attack from blazes which have torn though around 91,000 hectares throughout the state.
Eighty-one properties are confirmed to have been destroyed and 37 damaged by blazes in the Blue Mountains.
As residents and emergency services begin to return to affected areas, Mr Fitzsimmons said more casualties may be discovered.
“There is a possibility that we might find people who haven’t been able to get out of harm’s way,” he told reporters.
Crews were working on Friday afternoon to take advantage of the milder weather, before conditions are set to deteriorate on Sunday.
The fires were “some of the most damaging (and) destructive … in the history of NSW,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.
After losing possibly hundreds of homes on Thursday, the community of Springwood was again on high alert on Friday when the blaze got a second wind.
Students at Springwood High School were evacuated around 4pm (NZT) following fears of spot fires starting from flying embers.
Meanwhile, fire crews surrounded the historic Norman Lindsay Gallery – home to many of the artist’s precious artworks – in preparation to defend the site if necessary.
An emergency warning which was in place for a fire at Springwood in the NSW Blue Mountains has been downgraded to watch and act.
Firefighters are continuing to patrol and monitor the fire, which has affected areas around Winmalee, Warrimoo and Yellow Rock.
A number of evacuation centres have been opened in the area.
An emergency warning is in place at Leppington, in Sydney’s southwest where there are fears homes may come under threat.
Meanwhile, further north in Wyong, where an emergency warning remains in place, properties are being threatened and an historic building has been destroyed, with multiple spot fires burning in the area.
Residents of heritage seaside town Catherine Hill Bay have described the scene as “apocalyptic”.
A bushfire ripped through the quaint village near Lake Macquarie on Thursday, burning five historic buildings.
The 63-year-old man at nearby Lake Munmorah suffered a heart attack while he was fighting a fire at his home on Thursday afternoon.
Attempts were made to resuscitate him at the scene but he died at Wyong hospital.
Premier Barry O’Farrell said the man’s death was the worst possible scenario.
“That’s the worst that anyone wants to happen and we send our sympathy to his family,” Mr O’Farrell said at RFS headquarters in Sydney.
But he said it was important to remember the good job firefighters had done.
“During crises like this we understandably tend to focus on what’s been lost,” he said.
“I think we should pause and think about what’s been saved, what’s been protected because of the extraordinary work of firefighters over the last 24-48 hours.”
Mr Fitzsimmons became visibly emotional as he addressed the media, and had to pause to compose himself as he praised the work of firefighters.
“We have the best firefighters in the world,” he said.
Two fire fighters are in hospital with burns and a man from Winmalee in the Blue Mountains is being treated for smoke inhalation.
Almost 200 interstate firefighters have been brought in to help the more than 1400 already on the ground.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, an RFS volunteer himself, thanked those working on the NSW emergency.
“I just want to say how sorry we are on behalf of the people and the parliament of Australia for the heartache which so many hundreds of people in NSW are currently dealing with, but how proud we are of the thousands of volunteers and full-time professionals (fire fighters),” he said at Winmalee fire station.
He said conditions were much better for firefighters on Friday, following a very hot and extremely windy Thursday.
‘‘We’re going to see conditions considerably cooler and humidity will be much higher,’’ he said.
More than 2000 firefighters battled to save properties overnight, and extra firefighters were being brought in from Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania today to relieve exhausted crews.
And while the cool weather change should help fire crews, the respite would only be brief, with the mercury predicted to rise throughout the weekend and hit 30 degrees Celsius by Monday.
The sheer size of the raging fires meant “they create their own climatic conditions”, Rogers said.
AUTHORITIES CAUGHT OUT
The strength of Thursday’s winds caught authorities on the hop, with the fire danger only rated “severe” rather than “extreme”, as had been forecast for the previous Sunday’s heat spike.
Bankstown, for instance, recorded 95 kmh winds, the strongest there for at least 10 years, said Ben McBurney, a meteorologist with Weatherzone.
“The bureau didn’t expect wind speeds to go quite as high as they did,” he said.
Humidity across the basin also fell as low as 10 per cent. “That’s probably what led to these fires getting out of control,” said McBurney.
Many areas saw their fire danger ratings rocket to “catastrophic”, including for Richmond and Sydney Airport. Camden also had a “catastrophic” rating, the highest in 11 years.
Thursday saw the mercury climb to 33.6 degrees, the fourth day of 30-plus heat this month. Temperatures will mount again, with 24 tipped for Saturday, 28 on Sunday, and 31 for Monday – bringing the city just shy of the record six 30-plus days only reached in 1926 and 1968.
Little or no rain is expected for the Sydney basin until Monday, while winds will again pick up ahead of the next cool change. Fire conditions will be high or very high by then, forecasters say.
Monday’s trough is expected to bring rain.
David Jones, head of climate analysis at the Bureau of Meteorology, said climate change will see fire conditions worsen for much of Australia over the longer run.
While weather patterns vary from year to year, southern Australia is already seeing springs and summer becoming hotter. As a result, there is a “trend towards more severe fire weather conditions across Australia”.
“We know from about March-April to around June, things have been drying out across southern Australia,” he said.
“The fact there is less soil moisture increases the fire risk both towards the end of the fire season but also the subsequent fire season,” Jones said. “You have a lesser opportunity to really wet up the vegetation.”
“Global warming exacerbates a number of factors associated with fire,” he said, adding that humidity is expected to decline over much of the continent particularly in summer.
– AAP, with Sydney Morning Herald