FAC­ING OUR RECK­ON­ING

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS - AVA BENNY- MOR­RI­SON LINDA SILMALIS

IT was the bush­fire emer­gency fire­fight­ers feared — but ex­pected.

Mul­ti­ple large fires burn­ing across the state, the drought cre­at­ing dan­ger­ous fuel con­di­tions and a strong west­erly wind push­ing fire dan­ger rat­ings off the charts.

In one of the most ter­ri­fy­ing fire­fight­ing days in re­cent years, three peo­ple per­ished with fears for sev­eral oth­ers in a firestorm that took many res­i­dents by sur­prise.

An es­ti­mated 150 homes, schools and busi­nesses be­tween the Queens­land bor­der down to the NSW Mid North Coast are be­lieved to be de­stroyed with the loss ex­pected to rise as as­sess­ment teams move in.

How­ever, the night­mare has only just be­gun.

The state is now fac­ing up to a dan­ger­ous sum­mer of fires as sev­eral blazes burn­ing in deep bush edge to­wards coastal pop­u­la­tions.

The next chal­lenge will come on Tues­day with fire crews brac­ing for con­di­tions on par, if not worse, than con­di­tions that fu­elled the un­prece­dented emer­gency last week.

NSW Ru­ral Fire Ser­vice fire be­hav­iour an­a­lyst Simon Heem­stra de­scribed the up­com­ing con­di­tions as “very hot, very dry and very windy”. “The three are lin­ing up on Tues­day for po­ten­tially sig­nif­i­cant fire weather,” he said.

Over the next two days fire crews will be rac­ing the clock to bring as many blazes as they can un­der con­trol.

But con­tain­ment ef­forts will be chal­lenged by a drought-stricken land­scape where there is plenty of fuel and no mois­ture in the soil.

NSW Ru­ral Fire Ser­vice Com­mis­sioner Shane Fitzsim­mons de­scribed the re­sult­ing fire be­hav­iour as “ex­tra­or­di­nary”.

“You’ve got flamma­bil­ity of the fuel, which is see­ing ex­tra­or­di­nary fire be­hav­iour, fires start­ing ex­tremely quickly, spread­ing and burn­ing very in­tensely,” he said.

“And very quickly with spot fire ac­tiv­ity dou­bling or tripling what is nor­mally ex­pected over the fire

con­di­tions we have been ex­pe­ri­enc­ing.”

The fuel cou­pled with gusty winds on Fri­day cre­ated a sit­u­a­tion where em­bers were trav­el­ling for more than 10km and start­ing spot fires. “What we had on Fri­day was re­ally deep mix­ing and it was pulling strong winds down and that was giv­ing us that strong gusti­ness that was fan­ning the flames,” Mr Heem­stra ex­plained.

“That pro­vides more heat and en­ergy. Then the em­bers get higher into the at­mos­phere and are trans­ported fur­ther.” In some re­gions, like Bal­lina and Ar­mi­dale, the fire dan­ger rat­ings on Fri­day were the high­est on record. A de­cent down­pour a week ago had lit­tle im­pact.

“The wa­ter sat on the sur­face and the wind we’ve had has taken it away and we are back to square one,” Mr Heem­stra said.

Fire crews were draw­ing from rivers, ponds and streams when pos­si­ble and re­ly­ing heav­ily on ar­eas where wa­ter sup­ply wasn’t dire, like Coffs Har­bour and the Rich­mond air force base.

On Fri­day night, fire­fight­ers around the Ta­ree blazes could be heard call­ing in as prop­er­ties be­came en­gulfed in flames. One vol­un­teer, who ear­lier called in to say his crew was “un­der at­tack”, de­clared: “It’s out of con­trol here.”

An­other fire­fighter spoke of be­ing un­able to save homes: “Three houses are gone and we are en­gag­ing in prop­erty pro­tec­tion, but go­ing to pull out. House is un­save­able.” Over at Frasers Creek, a call went out for re­sources to help a per­son who was trapped.

“We are go­ing to try and put a de­fen­sive perime­ter around the prop­erty,” a vol­un­teer said. “Bridge in­volved in fire and is un­pass­able,” an­other said. Not all res­i­dents chose to leave their prop­er­ties.

“There is a prop­erty here with 80 per cent of it sur­rounded by fire,” a fire­fighter said. “The own­ers do not want to leave.”

Emer­gency Ser­vices Min­is­ter David El­liott thanked the 1300 RFS vol­un­teers and 200 NSW Fire and Res­cue and in­ter­state fire­fight­ers that were fight­ing the blazes.

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