Challenging conditions ahead for firefighters
Firefighters conducting backburning on the Darling Causeway describe the dangers they face and thank the support of the local community.PT1M24S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2vvtz 620 349 October 21, 2013
Firefighters battling the worst NSW fire disaster in nearly half a century have successfully prevented spot fires from jumping a major road in the Blue Mountains overnight, but they are now facing the prospect of stronger winds on Wednesday when conditions are expected to be their worst.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons praised the "extraordinarily good work" of firefighters who prevented spot fires along several kilometres of the Bells Line of Road in the Blue Mountains from crossing to the southern side of the road overnight on Sunday.
Fire trucks head towards Lithgow on Monday morning. Photo: Amanda Hoh
If the fire jumps that road, firefighters fear it could merge with another large fire in the Springwood and Winmalee areas to form one massive blaze.
But the good news was tempered by an updated weather forecast for Wednesday, which is expected to pose the most challenging conditions for firefighters.
The forecast for temperatures into the mid 30s, low humidity and high winds had already been assessed as much worse than predicted last week.
Aftermath of the Winmalee bushfire on Emma Pde. The Kozumplik family sifts through the rubble of what used to be their home for anything that can be salvaged. Photo: Wolter Peeters
But on Monday morning, Mr Fitzsimmons said that forecast had been updated overnight with worsening wind conditions.
"The challenging aspect of the forecast is that they're forecasting a strengthening of the winds for Wednesday now, only by another 10km/h, but that's still going to be quite problematic," he said.
"We've got quite a few days ahead still before we see the weather culminate in the most challenging forecast weather day, which is expected on Wednesday."
A 'thank you' sign along Bells Line of Road in Dargan. Photo: Colin Crosier
Premier Barry O'Farrell on Sunday took the extraordinary step of declaring a state of emergency across NSW for the next 30 days, which will give special powers to all emergency services to deal with what could be a catastrophe.
On Monday morning, there were 56 fires burning around the state, of which 12 were not contained.
The Rural Fire Service has one emergency warning in place for the 38,000-hectare State Mine fire, which started on defence land near Lithgow. An investigation is yet to determine whether it was ignited by explosives training.
NSW bushfires: Back burning in the Blue Mountains
A large back burning operation was carried out overnight to protect Bilpin and Mountain Lagoon as fire conditions deteriorate. Photo: Nick Moir
The RFS said the fire was burning near the township of Bell, as well as Dargan, Clarence and Bilpin.
An emergency alert telephone warning message was sent late on Sunday to residents in Bell, who were advised to leave their properties immediately if not prepared and travel west along the Bells Line of Road towards Lithgow. The Lithgow Workers Club is open as an evacuation centre.
Three "watch and act" warnings - one level below an emergency warning - were in place for fires at Springwood and Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains and Balmoral in the southern highlands on Monday morning.
Live details of active fires - click on the icons for more information. Source: NSW Rural Fire Service.
Mr Fitzsimmons said more than 2000 firefighters out battling the blazes achieved good results on Sunday evening and into Monday morning.
"We saw some spotting activity of some kilometres up along the State Mine Fire burning near Bell, but fortunately that spotting activity went in behind the backburning that was occurring on the ground and has not breached the south or south-eastern side of the Bells Line of Road at that location," Mr Fitzsimmons said.
He said the fire did flare up around Bell and Hartley Vale on Sunday afternoon, where some sheds, a boat and a trailer were destroyed by fire.
But he said firefighters managed to save a house that came under direct threat.
"Firefighters will remain very busy today trying to consolidate as much of that containment as they can, and similarly down in the fire near Wingecarribee, just to the west of Bargo and just south of Buxton. They were dealing with some break-outs overnight where that fire was breaching containment, but at this stage it looks pretty positive in relation to wrapping that up, but it will require a lot of concentration and effort ongoing today."
He said there was potential for that fire to breach the south-eastern corner or eastern edge, which could end up posing some risk to the Illawarra escarpment and possibly the Illawarra.
Mr Fitzsimmons said there was still a chance the three fires in the Blue Mountains could merge to form one massive blaze.
Those fires had the potential to burn to the eastern end of the Hawkesbury, down into the north-west area of Sydney including Richmond.
"The reality is, the modelling indicates that there's every likelihood under the forecast weather conditions that these two fires particularly up in the back end of the mountains will merge at some point," he said.
"The worst case scenario in the fire run, with the expected weather, is that they could ultimately reach down to the fire at Springwood and Winmalee, but with the continued success of the firefighting effort, let's hope that it doesn't extend all that far eastward."
If that happens, the worst fire disaster in NSW for at least 45 years could lead to evacuations from high-population centres such as Katoomba and Leura.
The state of emergency powers gives emergency services authority to deal with "whatever eventualities may arise", Mr O'Farrell said.
This included the right to order the public to leave or to enter an area and the right to demolish a building.
It also prevents people from disobeying an order given under these powers, making it an offence to obstruct or disobey these orders.