Horror day as bushfires ravage towns
Fire crews have continued to battle ferocious bushfires across the nation, which have ravaged towns in New South Wales and South Australia.
Authorities in South Australia said at least 72 homes were destroyed in the Cudlee Creek fires, which started on Saturday and devastated the Adelaide Hills yesterday.
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall described the scene as "absolutely devastating".
"This is a very sad day for the people of South Australia as many return to their homes in the Adelaide Hills … and all they find is rubble," he said.
The Premier also confirmed that 404 outbuildings at properties and 227 vehicles have been destroyed.
In NSW, the areas hardest hit include Lithgow and along the Bells Line of Road in the upper Blue Mountains, and the Wollondilly and Wingecarribee Shire villages of Buxton, Balmoral and Bargo, which were ravaged for the second time in three days.
Watch and Act: Grose Valley fire (Blue Mountains LGA).— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) December 22, 2019
The threat to homes has eased. Crews will remain in the area to slow the spread of fire, and protect hoems where required. Residents should continue to stay up to date with the situation and if your plan is to leave. #nswrfs pic.twitter.com/aFhJ1usE21
A sudden wind change flared an immense blaze near Green Wattle Creek on Saturday as temperatures hit 41C, destroying an as-yet-unknown number of homes.
Speaking on Sunday, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian expressed her devastation as she confirmed "there's not much left in the town of Balmoral".
"I'm very sad to hear that, and many residents, of course, have had that news in the last little while," Ms Berejiklian told reporters.
The town is home to some 400 people, with an estimated 150 houses.
Just before 11pm, there are 98 bush and grass fires burning in NSW, 50 are still to be contained. More favourable conditions today have allowed firefighters to work on assessing the damage from the last couple of days and focus on containment options. #nswrfs #nswfires pic.twitter.com/up84cgPwCz— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) December 22, 2019
Expert teams are currently assessing the damage, and will let residents know when it's safe for them to return, she said.
"We want people to have access to their land, to their property, as soon as they can. But it has to be safe. Even if people have lost their properties, they still want to go back to see what's left and if there is anything they can salvage."
NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons says the extent of property damage, which includes houses as well as other structures such as sheds, is "significant".
"We could be talking about another hundred buildings being added to the state tally so far this season," he told reporters today.
Emergency warnings weren't downgraded until the early hours of Sunday morning. "We are expecting another heavy toll unfortunately with estimates that property loss could be in the dozens of buildings including homes, outbuildings, sheds and businesses," Mr Fitzsimmons said.
Crews are expected to experience more favourable weather conditions in coming days as they work to limit the spread of some 110 fires, of which almost 60 are uncontained.
Mr Fitzsimmons said firefighters would take advantage of better conditions this week, which should include temperatures in the mid-20s, higher humidity and easterly winds.
The biggest focus will be on preparing vulnerable Blue Mountains communities ahead of hotter and more challenging conditions returning next weekend.
"With the easing weather conditions today, crews are working hard to strengthen containment lines," the RFS said in a statement on Sunday.
"Planning is underway for large scale back burns today in the Blue Mountains to contain the Grose Valley Fire."
The Greater Sydney basin didn't reach the forecast catastrophic conditions on Saturday because heavy bushfire smoke acted as insulation to reduce temperatures.
The heavy smoke - which has been causing hazardous air pollution for months - also mitigated the strengthening winds.
"It was a blessing in terms of preventing the catastrophic conditions reaching their forecast level in the Greater Sydney area," Mr Fitzsimmons said. Firefighters suffered from heat exhaustion on Saturday, with one crew in the Dargan area overcome by chlorine fumes after a building containing the chemical caught alight.
A number of firefighters were taken to hospital for treatment. Mr Fitzsimmons warned the worse was still to come this summer, with "far more risk and exposure as we head through the hotter months".
"We're not expecting any meaningful rain to start bringing a meaningful easing of conditions on these fire grounds until late January or early February," he said.
PM APOLOGISES FOR HAWAII HOLIDAY
Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday apologised for taking a family vacation in Hawaii as deadly bushfires raged across several states.
Mr Morrison cut short a vacation with his wife and adult children amid public anger at his absence from Australia at a time of national crisis.
He arrived home on Saturday and on Sunday morning spoke to reporters while visiting the headquarters of the RFS.
"If you had your time over again and you had the benefit of hindsight, we would have made different decisions," Morrison said. "I am sure Australians are fair-minded and understand that when you make a promise to your kids you try and keep it."
He added: "But as Prime Minister, you have other responsibilities and I accept that and I accept the criticism."
Mr Morrison said this was not a time for political pointscoring but a "time to be kind to each other". He said he is not a trained firefighter, but is "comforted by the fact that Australians would like me to be here just simply so I can be here, alongside them, as they are going through this terrible time".
He also answered critics who say his government has not done enough to fight climate change, which has been cited as a major factor in the spate of fires burning across NSW, Victoria and South Australia.
He said there were also "many other factors" responsible for the unprecedented number of fires during a record-breaking heatwave.
"There is no argument … about the links between broader issues of global climate change and weather events around the world," he said. "But I'm sure people equally would acknowledge that the direct connection to any single fire event - it's not a credible suggestion to make that link."
DETAILS OF THE ADELAIDE HILLS BUSHFIRE:
* One person killed (69-year-old Ron Selth) three more in hospital with burns.
* 25,000 hectares burnt within a 127-kilometre perimeter
* 72 homes confirmed lost along with 404 other buildings and 227 vehicles.
* 330 sheep found dead with 390 more shot after being badly burned.
* Six cows and a calf also killed.
* Significant losses to crops, including vineyards
* 300 firefighters still on the ground working to establish breaks and contain areas still burning.
* Total losses likely to run into millions of dollars
VICTORIA'S SMOKY CONDITIONS AFTER FIRES
As two bushfires in the southwest and and southeast parts of Victoria remain under "watch and act" warnings, the state gets ready to face smoky conditions on Monday.
Mild conditions during the weekend helped firefighters strengthen containment lines, but two blazes were still burning uncontrolled in Tambo Crossing and Hotspur, Digby.
Temperatures dipped on Sunday with about 24C in East Gippsland, and a milder 22C in Melbourne, after a top of 44C in the Victorian capital on Friday. Several other fires remained under advice warnings across the state. None of the fires are a threat to lives and homes, but emergency services encouraged residents to remain vigilant as conditions could change quickly "Emergency Services may not be able to help you if you decide to stay," the VicEmergency website stated.
The Environment Protection Authority forecast hazardous air quality on Monday, with winds forecast to drag smoke from bushfires burning in East Gippsland and New South Wales.
"Melbourne and the Latrobe Valley are expected to experience smoky conditions from the early hours of Monday morning until late Tuesday," the EPA said. "People who are sensitive to air pollution could have symptoms like coughing or shortness of breath." The bushfires in East Gippsland have been burning since Thursday - a day of statewide total fire bans which saw a 'Code Red' fire danger rating. Hundreds of firefighters on the ground and in the air have been working across the state to contain the fires, which are concentrated in steep and largely inaccessible terrain.
"We have had more than 2,200 CFA deployments into New South Wales and Queensland since September and many more thousands of CFA members responding to fires back here in Victoria," CFA Chief Officer and CEO Steve Warrington said. Mr Warrington will visit the East Gippsland fires on Monday as the final areas of Victoria - Moyne, Southern Grampians and Warrnambool - enter Fire Danger Period.
When a Fire Danger Period is declared, fires can't be lighted in open air without a permit or complying with certain requirements.