Fire authorities say they’ll put lives before homes as severe and extreme conditions again loom for the two states, amid fears Saturday will bring even more deadly conditions than on New Year’s Eve.
Dangerous winds and stifling heat on Saturday are expected to fan bushfires that have already killed at least 19 people, destroyed at least 1400 homes and prompted emergency declarations in Victoria and NSW.
Fires that already cover 100,000 hectares may double in size with winds of up to 100km/h forecast for Saturday. There are also fears that blazes burning in alpine country on either side of the NSW and Victorian borders could merge into one enormous mega blaze.
The heat and wind will mean towns such as Nowra and Narooma, which have thousands of residents, will fall directly into the line of fire.
Almost 30 people were unaccounted for in Victoria on Friday, where disaster powers were declared and the Australian Defence Force was evacuating people from the far north-east.
NSW was on day three of week-long state of emergency, the third in as many months, as dangerous fire weather increased.
Everyone in the 1300-strong town of Batlow on the fringes of Kosciuszko National Park, was ordered to leave by Thursday night, with the 130,000-hectare Dunns Road fire expected to hit on Friday.
BENDALONG: Motorists are being escorted along Bendalong Rd towards the Princes Hwy. pic.twitter.com/oG377KyhzN
— Live Traffic NSW (@LiveTrafficNSW) January 3, 2020
EVACUATE NOW: Residents in Harrietville, Freeburgh, Smoko and Wandi are being advised to EVACUATE NOW as weather conditions deteriorate. You should use the Great Alpine Road and head towards the safety of #Wangaratta @abcmelbourne @ABCemergency
— Ashlee Aldridge (@Ashlee_Aldridge) January 3, 2020
A similar message was issued for the regional towns of Khancoban, Greg Greg and Tooma.
Holiday-makers in the alps and destinations between Nowra and the Victorian border were told to leave by Friday night.
The resulting rush to escape caused massive traffic queues and petrol and supply shortages.
RFS maps predict major regional towns, including Nowra and Narooma, and huge stretches of the Snowy Valleys will be directly in the line of fire on Saturday. Batemans Bay, Bermagui and Ulladulla will be under ember attack, as will parts of the Blue Mountains and Mittagong.
The temperature is forecast to reach 45 degrees inland and up to 43 degrees on the coast.
The weather bureau said Saturday’s winds could be even more dangerous than on last Tuesday because they were expected later in the day and would allow temperatures to climb.
Heat would rise quickly on Saturday before a change swept over the state, Bureau of Meteorology acting NSW manager Jane Golding said.
“We’ve got a long hot day to get through first with some really dangerous fire dangers,” Ms Golding said.
“That cold front bringing that southerly change, we’re expecting that not to reach the far south coast … until late in the day, to move through the Batemans Bay region early evening and come through Sydney about midnight.”
She said the chance of new fires being sparked by lightning on Saturday was high.
“The main area we’re concerned about is an area stretching right from the South Australian border to the central and southern slopes, western slopes of NSW,” she said.
At a briefing on Friday afternoon, Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said there were 14 watch and act alerts across the state.
By 4.20pm (AEDT), there were seven evacuation notices.
“We literally have hundreds and hundreds of kilometres of active reach, of uncontained fire,” he said.
On Friday, motorists were told not to travel to the NSW south coast and Snowy Mountains-Riverina areas, where fires have caused widespread power outages and major road closures.
— ABCcameramatt (@ABCcameramatt) January 2, 2020
The Princes Highway north of Batemans Bay was open again on Friday, but with a reduced speed limit.
Sections of the road south of Batemans Bay remained closed.
The Snowy Mountains Highway was open between Bega and Adaminaby, providing a route back to Sydney and Canberra for motorists on the far south coast. Visibility was poor.
Victorian authorities also stepped up efforts to reach 24 cut-off communities so they can be evacuated before Saturday’s escalating fire danger.
A convoy of 46 cars and a bus left Cann River on Thursday afternoon after residents were told trying to leave on Saturday would be extremely dangerous.
— Kath Sullivan (@KathSully) January 3, 2020
In South Australia, the extreme conditions arrived on Friday. SA Country Fire Service chief officer Mark Jones said existing blazes were yet to be brought under control, including one on the southern end of Kangaroo Island.
More than 140 fires are burning across NSW, with dozens uncontained and thousands of firefighters in the field.
In Sydney, the Royal National Park will be closed from Saturday until further notice, as will Heathcote National Park and other western Sydney parklands.
In Victoria, about 50 fires continue to burn in the east and north-east.
Western Australia, Tasmania and Queensland each have more than 30 fires, several considered significant.