As many communities in and around the fire-besieged Blue Mountains west of Sydney remain in emergency mode, tempers are flaring among exhausted residents, law enforcers and firefighting volunteers – many of whom are now doing consecutive 12-hour overnight shifts.
The situation won’t be helped by soaring temperatures, with Richmond at the foot of the Blue Mountains expected to hit 45 degrees on Thursday.
Up to 20 buildings, including homes, burned down between Sunday afternoon and the early hours of Monday morning after backburning and fire hazard reduction being conducted near Mount Wilson breached containment lines.
At least one home was lost at Mount Wilson’s Wynne’s Rocks, the home of the local fire chief, while around eight homes were lost near Skyline Road in Mount Tomah.
It is feared the new backburn blaze will join up with the Gospers Mountain mega fire that has been alight since late October, and has now destroyed almost three-quarters of the Wollemi National Park.
“Everyone’s trying to hold it together and support each other, but we’re all pretty stressed, and there’s a bit of aggression coming through,” the owner of well-known Australian beverage business Bilpin Cider, Sean Prendergast, told The Australian Financial Review.
“It’s hard to blame people for lashing out, as everyone is exhausted and fed up battling this.”
Locals had been watching the Gospers Mountain fire head their way since late October when it was 50 kilometres from Bilpin and had burnt about 5000 hectares, Mr Prendergast said.
“Now Gospers is less than 10 kilometres away, and it’s burnt 400,000 hectares. And then since Saturday, we’ve got another separate fire to worry about that was started to try and prevent the spread of the megafire – except that the burn-off got out of control and burnt down homes and properties.
“No wonder people are losing it.”
Bilpin area resident Eddy Hungerford lost everything on Sunday afternoon in the backburn fire except the main house on his 10-hectare commercial fruit orchard at Berambing. “When you’re up close to the fumes they are just so toxic you almost pass out,” he said.
His house only survived as he basically didn’t sleep for two nights, then stayed to try and defend his farm, along with his adult daughter and son-in-law. “Apart from the house, it’s utter devastation,” he said. “Words just don’t describe it.”
Praising the heroic efforts of countless volunteers, with more than 50 fire trucks now in the Blue Mountains region including from Davidson and Cottage Point in northern Sydney, Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill said the immediate focus was on “the recovery process and the many jobs at hand”.
“One of the issues is there are so few resources – there’s not enough people; [communities] are having to turn to back burning because they are so resource-poor.
“The council was not involved in the decision [to back burn], but once things have settled down and the time is right, I’ll be asking: ‘What the hell happened?’
It’s alleged that the Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury local government areas were in disagreement over whether the backburn should have been lit on Saturday.
NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said firefighters had been “executing some very sensible, some very risky, some very challenging decisions”.
Around 2000 firefighters are now deployed across NSW, attending to 133 incidents including the two emergency fires (Gospers Mountain and another 1600-hectare fire at Palmers Oaky, 55 kilometres north of Lithgow), along with three flames at “watch-and-act” alert level.
In Western Australia there was an emergency-level fire on Monday, north of Perth, which has been burning out-of-control for the past six days. It has consumed 1300 hectares of land and was threatening the suburbs of Woodridge, Sea Trees and Breakwater Estates.
Watch-and-act warnings were issued for residents of Guilderton, Eglinton, Sovereign Hill, Redfield Park, Yanchep, and Two Rocks.
Victoria’s power supply will be on a knife-edge on Wednesday after AGL Energy reported a slippage in the timing for bringing its Loy Yang A coal power plant back online after lengthy repairs just as extreme heat is set to envelop the state.
Temperatures in Melbourne are forecast to surge to 39 degrees on Wednesday after a mild start to the summer. AEMO’s forecast pointed to 936MW of reserve capacity available between 4.30pm and 6pm on Wednesday, less than the required 1015 MW.
In Queensland, Brisbane sweltered with temperatures exceeding 41 degrees on Monday afternoon, matching the city’s hottest day on record.
Queensland Rural Fire Service issued watch-and-act warnings for flames around Mount Maria and Gregory River, near Bundaberg, and in the Kumbarilla State Forest, south-east of Tara.
Fiona Carruthers has been the Financial Review’s Travel editor since 2018 and editor of Sophisticated Traveller since 2012. Prior to joining the Financial Review she was deputy travel editor of Traveller and has written travel for The Sunday Times, The Financial Times, The Australian, Time Magazine, and The Sunday Telegraph. Fiona has produced travel features for ABC Radio National and Deutsche Welle. Connect with Fiona on Twitter. Email Fiona at [email protected]