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'It looked like an atom bomb': telescope saved but 'dangerous' bushfire destroys homes

Twelve properties have been destroyed by a "fast moving, large and dangerous" bushfire that tore through a national park in northern NSW on Sunday, but the main telescope at a world-leading observatory is believed to have survived the blaze.

Firefighters fear more homes have been lost in the ferocious fire that pushed through Warrumbungle National Park after a sudden change in the wind.

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NSW bush fire destroys 33 homes

Bush fires rage across north-west NSW destroying at least 33 homes.

Specialist Rural Fire Service crews were flown into the fire zone on Monday morning to assess the damage and confirmed that at least 12 properties along Timor Road, west of Coonabarabran, had been destroyed.

"There may be other properties destroyed. Firefighting crews will assess the damage in the morning," a Rural Fire Service spokesperson said.

A number of buildings, including the lodge at the Siding Spring Observatory in the national park, were damaged in the bushfire that firefighters say was fanned by "atrocious' weather conditions.

But Andrew Hopkins, acting director of the Australian Astronomical Observatory, said the Anglo-Australian Telescope - the nation's biggest - is believed to have survived the blaze.


"What we understand at this point in time is that there has been some damage to some of the structures on the top of the mountain but it looks as though all of the main telescope facilities are okay," Mr Hopkins said.

"Of course we're incredibly grateful to the efforts of the Rural Fire Service. The significance of the site is absolutely huge. The Siding Spring Observatory site is the premiere astronomical observatory facility in Australia for optical and infrared observing."

Eighteen staff members were evacuated from the observatory, which is owned by the Australian National University.

Early on Monday morning the RFS downgraded the fire threat from "emergency" to a "watch and act" status, and the fire, which has burnt out up to 40,000 hectares, is no longer posing an immediate threat to properties.

The fire was burning in a northerly direction away from Timor Road and the Siding Spring Observatory and at 8.30am was about one kilometre south of Bugaldie.

The Coonabarabran Road, known locally as the Baradine Road, and Timor Road, also known as John Renshaw Parkway, remained closed on Monday morning and an evacuation centre has been established at the Tattersalls Hotel on Wellington Street in Baradine.

What we understand at this point in time is that there has been some damage to some of the structures on the top of the mountain but it looks as though all of the main telescope facilities are okay.

About 100 residents were evacuated on Sunday night along a four-kilometre fire front, with people seeking refuge in Coonabarabran as huge columns of smoke filled the sky.

"It looked like an atom bomb the way it went up," said Susan Armstrong, who owns a property to the west of the fire. Her husband, Brian, had been fighting the blaze, which started on Saturday, but his crew had to pull back.

"They got sent home. It was far too dangerous," Mrs Armstrong said. "He said the spot fires and how quickly it all moved was quite scary."

Meanwhile, a cool change brought relief to NSW Rural Fire Service officers fighting bushfires in other areas. On Sunday, more than 190 firefighters were working to contain a bushfire burning 12 kilometres west of Sussex Inlet, on the south coast. The fire has burnt more than 8400 hectares but there is no immediate threat to properties.

The latest blast of heat from Australia's hot heart sent the mercury soaring over the weekend in parts of western NSW and in Queensland. Walgett touched 48.5 degrees and nearby Bourke 48. Tibooburra Post Office's 47.9 degrees was the highest in 103 years of records.

"Once we get to Tuesday to Thursday of [this] week, the interior could be just as hot as today," Brett Dutschke, senior meteorologist at Weatherzone, said.

With Bevan Shields and Anne Tarasov