NGHARIE McCALLUM has never had to evacuate the tiny town of Tarcutta in the 46 years she's lived there. But on Tuesday afternoon she decided to pack her bags and leave.
By the time she was set to leave the township, east of Wagga Wagga in the Riverina, it was too late. Fire had surrounded the town and residents were told to stay put.
More than 300 locals were believed to still be in the emergency area on Tuesday night. About a dozen were taking shelter at the Tarcutta RSL and Citizens Club on Tuesday afternoon.
NSW and ACT Fires - 8th January 2013
Residents in NSW areas with a "catastrophic" fire danger woke up to sweltering temperatures. The Southern Ranges and Illawarra/Shoalhaven areas have been given the highest possible fire danger rating. A total fire ban has been declared statewide, and all national parks, state forests and reserves have been closed to the public. Selected images available from www.fairfaxsyndication.com. Follow us at http:\twitter.com/photosSMH. Photo: REUTERS/Tim Wimborne
Ms McCallum, the club director, hoped more would arrive as the evening wore on.
''The town is full of smoke,'' she said. ''It's been so hot and dry today - it's like a furnace.'
''We're just sort of sitting and waiting - apparently we are surrounded by fire [and] they're saying there's another fire north of us, so we are virtually in the middle of fire. We are surrounded.''
As embers blew kilometres ahead of the fire, the nearby Hume Highway, on which Tarcutta is located, was closed.
To the east in Deans Gap, in the Shoalhaven, residents had worried about the confluence of 42-degree heat and winds of 70km/h.
The fire there had started on Monday before the worst of the heat arrived. Crews fought it late into the night. By 7am on Tuesday about a dozen firefighters from the Rural Fire Service went to meet the fire in Morton National Park, about 20 kilometres south-west of Nowra.
By noon their efforts appeared futile. They retreated to the road shoulder, watching grey smoke trail into the sky as a constant hot wind blew dust in their faces.
They called in the bucket firebombers and air cranes. But as the aircraft made their way back and forth between farmers' dams and the fire's heart, the wind had minutes all to its own to stoke the blaze. It was moving south-east, being led by a breakaway spot fire.
Over the ridge at the town of Wandandian, Ross Earby watched from the top of a hill as the fires converged and plumes grew dark and thick.
''A lot of people were sceptical but it just shows you've just got to keep an eye on it,'' he said. ''I knew it was serious when my neighbours started pulling out.''
The fire was spreading across the horizon, moving towards the townships of Conjola and Twelve Mile Peg, about 30km south of Nowra.
Kiaya Fleming was selling peaches on the side of the road near the Princes Highway at Twelve Mile when firefighters arrived at 3pm, sirens blaring, and told her to get out.
Andrew Preston, a tradesman at Bomaderry, had driven to his boss's property north of Twelve Mile for a view from the roof of a shed. ''It's massive,'' he said of the mass of black and grey smoke and brown dust moving slowly across the sky in front of him.
At Bewong River Retreat, north of Wandandian, owner Scott Davis calmly evacuated about six guests before surrounding roads were closed.
''It was better to be safe than sorry,'' Mr Davis said.
At 6pm he was the only one on the property. Although he could see only the smoke, he knew the wind would change and the conditions worsen. He hosed down the cabins, left the the fire sprinklers running, and drove away.
On nearby Wandean Road, resident Bronwyn Smith was frantically packing, worried the wind was about to change.
''I'm pretty scared,'' she said. ''I have two young children. I'm just getting all my stuff and I'm going …
''The north side of the highway is still open, so hopefully we'll be able to get through.''
with Georgie Mitchell and AAP