Residents in Springwood and surrounding areas survey the aftermath of sweeping bush fires that have ravaged the Blue Mountains this week.
Premier Barry O’Farrell has declared a state of emergency across NSW for the next 30 days, which will give special powers to all emergency services to force evacuations and deal with what could be a catastrophe.
The last time such an order was used was in March 2012, to cope with devastating floods.
The entire Blue Mountains and the suburbs of western Sydney around Penrith and Richmond are in danger of burning over the next few days, as hotter and drier than expected weather conditions combine with huge fire fronts already burning, the NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has said.
The dire predictions come after it became clear on Sunday that the forecast for high temperatures, low humidity and high winds was much worse than predicted last week, the commissioner said.
“We are not in a catastrophic [weather] ratings scale [but] we are talking about fire danger ratings that will be in the severe category and you overlay that with the fires that are already burning and it’s a whole new ball game,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.
The worst case scenario, modelling suggested, was that “the communities of the Blue Mountains from Mt Victoria and Blackheath all the way down to Penrith will be affected by fire, and also the Bells Line of Road and then into north-western Sydney and Richmond”.
The official NSW property toll is 208 homes destroyed and 122 damaged. A 63-year-old man has died. There have been 610 insurance claims for damage estimated at $43 million, a number expected to rise significantly.
The worst fire disaster in NSW for at least 45 years could lead to the forced evacuations from high-population centres such as Katoomba and Leura over the next three days.
Temperatures in the 30s and wind gusts of up to 100km/h could threaten all Blue Mountains communities, Mr Fitzsimmons warned.
Mr Fitzsimmons said more firefighters were being called in.
Other fires are still burning, including in the Wyong area, the Illawarra, and Port Stephens. There is also “a fairly large fire” near Singleton and Muswellbrook. Depending on wind speeds and directions later this week, Budgewoi and Toukley could come under threat from the fire now burning around Wyong. “Under the hot, dry and windy conditions that are coming, none of these fire ground areas are safe,” he said.
But these were all dwarfed by the Blue Mountains fires, Mr Fitzsimmons said, because they did not involve mountainous and inaccessible terrain.
”I hope like hell that at the end of this week people are criticising me because we’ve acted on forecasts and it didn’t happen,” Mr Fitzsimmons said. ”But what would be worse would be if we didn’t act on the forecasts.”
The hottest day of this coming week is expected to be Monday. Tuesday might bring rain but it might be as little as 2 millimetres, Mr Fitzsimmons said – not enough to have a positive effect. The wind strengths would be worst on Wednesday.
”There is no doubt these fires will continue to grow. The only uncertainty is to what extent,” he said.
When asked why, if it was expected to be so bad, he was not advising everyone in the mountains to leave, Mr Fitzsimmons said: ”In some areas that is exactly what we are talking about [but] we cannot sensibly look at demanding [that we empty] the entire Blue Mountains of its population. It may not be necessary to do that or it may in some areas, depending on developments in the coming days.”
Assistant Police Commissioner Alan Clarke warned: “Police will be doing forced evacuations if necessary.”
“Undoubtedly that will cause distress to those people,” Premier Barry O’Farrell told a news conference on Sunday at the RFS headquarters, where he and Emergency Services Minister Mike Gallacher flanked the fire and police chiefs. “It may cause some wider controversy but it’s clear that at times like this that it’s better to be safe than sorry.”
After a briefing at the RFS headquarters at Lidcombe, Mr O’Farrell said the destruction of 208 homes “may not be the end of it”, so people in targeted areas would be asked to leave their homes.
That process began on Sunday when residents of the village of Bell were advised to evacuate. And residents west of Bilpin village, including the communities of Mt Tomah and Berambing, were told to leave along the Bells Line of Road towards Richmond. In Bilpin residents were told they could stay but were warned power was likely to be cut and they might be unable to leave for days because fires would block roads in and out. But Mr O’Farrell said: “If the choice is life of property, the choice clearly should be life.”
Mr Clarke said authorities would provide as much information as possible for people to save their properties but he appealed for them to evacuate as soon as that advice was issued. “At the end of the day, we hope we have buildings standing, but if we don’t have buildings standing, we don’t want bodies in them,” he said.
“It’s important to understand that the single tragedy we’ve had in these fires so far has been … where an individual chose to remain and fight a fire.”
Emergency services could not tie up resources “wrestling with one person to get off a property if they are capable and able to make a decision”. They needed to focus on people who couldn’t help themselves.
With worsening conditions forecast, culminating on Wednesday, Mr Fitzsimmons said: “We are talking wind strengths starting at 25 to 30 kilometres [an hour] and gusting up to 50, 60 and right up to – as the days roll on – wind strengths of 70 to 100 kilometres per hour across of these fireground areas.”
Mr Fitzsimmons said the entire Blue Mountains community needed to be on alert for possible evacuations, from Mt Victoria and Blackheath to Katoomba and Leura, “right down to the fire burning in Springwood” and beyond to Kurrajong and Richmond.
“We are not talking necessarily at this stage of mass evacuations of the entire Blue Mountains community,” he said. “But what we can’t rule out is that there will be parts that may well be evacuated. We have very changing, dynamic, volatile situations that will unfold over the next three to four days.”
Asked how evacuations would work in bigger centres such as Katoomba or Leura – where the Great Western Highway, the main escape route, could be a traffic jam in the best of conditions – Mr Fitzsimmons said those strategies were being worked out.
On Sunday, an emergency warning was placed over the 37,000-square-hectare State Mine fire, which started on Defence land near Lithgow. An investigation is yet to determine whether it was ignited by explosives training.
Mr Fitzsimmons said light rain expected on Tuesday would be “inconsequential” and any marginal improvement in the extreme weather that triggered the initial disaster last Thursday would be “academic” – now that fires were burning over such vast terrain.
“When you overlay that fire weather forecast across [the Lithgow fire] … and an active fire edge of more than 300 kilometres, and you couple that with a fire only several kilometres to the south near Blackheath, and indeed a fire where we’ve seen so much devastation already down towards Springwood and Winmalee, we’ve got what would be unparalleled in terms of risk and exposure for the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury communities throughout this week.”
– Sydney Morning Herald