Heartbreak as residents of towns near Sydney find homes reduced to ashes
Residents faced scenes of devastation yesterday after bushfires ravaged communities and destroyed "hundreds" of homes in southeastern Australia, leaving one man dead with dozens of blazes still out of control.
Cooler temperatures and a drop in wind offered firefighters some relief after an intense battle on Thursday, but nearly 100 fires were still raging across the state of New South Wales.
NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the situation was still "very active, very dynamic, very dangerous".
"We are going to continue to save life and to protect as much property as possible, but at the same time slowly take advantage of the weather conditions," he said, adding that 91,000 hectares had been burned out so far.
Several major blazes fanned by high, erratic winds in unseasonably warm weather ripped through communities in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney on Thursday, with whole streets razed.
One fatality has been reported so far - a 63-year-old man died from a heart attack as he defended his home on the Central Coast, north of Sydney.
The Central Coast blaze was described as "apocalyptic" by residents, with at least five historic buildings in the seaside town of Catherine Hill Bay reduced to charred ruins or badly damaged.
"It was huge, strong southerly winds and flames as high as trees," said long-time resident Wayne Demarco.
Hundreds of residents spent the night in evacuation centres in the Blue Mountains and awoke to confront the broad extent of the disaster.
Ron Fuller was one of those who lost his home in Winmalee, a town 80 kilometres inland from Sydney with a population of about 6,000. "We've had a number of fires through here before but this was an extraordinary fire. The speed was extraordinary. It just raced through this whole area, took out some houses, left other ones standing," he said.
Blue Mountains Mayor Mark Greenhill said the enormity of the catastrophe was only now being realised. "I think people who lost their homes yesterday are hitting reality today," he said. "You can see the devastation on their faces. It's very, very difficult."
The rural fire service said: "It appears there may be hundreds of homes destroyed."