An elderly couple has died and at least 29 homes have been destroyed in northern NSW fires, with firefighters still working to contain several blazes.
Firefighters are looking forward to forecast rain after an anguishing week of devastation which left scores homeless.
The bodies of 77-year-old Bob Lindsey and Gwen Hyde, 68, were found in their destroyed Coongbar home on Thursday after the blaze known as the Drake fire roared through the region on Tuesday afternoon.
Local Ken Crowther said the couple was well known in the small community about 70km south of Casino.
“It’ll be fairly devastating for us all,” he told Ten News.
The couple reportedly met late in life and married three years ago.
The couple’s friend Carol Dillon told News Corp “everyone was pleased” when Mr Lindsey, a former service station owner, got together with Ms Hyde, a widowed farmer.
“It was a lovely wedding, a quiet one,” she said.
Superintendent Toby Lindsay told reporters the circumstances of their deaths would be “subject to an extensive investigation”.
The Drake fire which killed the couple had been burning for more than a month before it flared up and hit Coongbar on Tuesday. Fire investigators say it was caused by a lightning strike.
The neighbouring Busbys Flat fire – which has since joined up with the Drake blaze – only started on Friday evening and police believe it was deliberately lit.
At least 29 homes have been destroyed in both blazes this week, with that number expected to increase as NSW Rural Fire Service assessments continue.
A further 72 outhouses and two community facilities have been destroyed, according to the most recent count.
RFS spokesman James Morris said firefighters from South Australia and Victoria, and personnel from the Northern Territory, had arrived in the state on Thursday to help out.
More than 30 bush and grass fires continued to burn in NSW on Thursday afternoon – and while 13 remained uncontained, Mr Morris said they would see favourable conditions in coming days.
“We’re likely to see some rain over the fire grounds on Saturday so that will allow us to see hopefully some containment,” he told AAP.
“Obviously we’ll see some easing of fire conditions even further and fire activity, but it will depend on how much (rain) we get.”
Superintendent Toby Lindsay said the trail of destruction left by the Northern Rivers fire – which has been deemed suspicious by police – was sobering.
Richmond Valley mayor Robert Mustow asked locals to report into authorities.
“I would ask people, if you’ve vacated your property, please go down to the evacuation centre (and) register.”
Teams are still assessing how many properties were lost or damaged in the blaze, which is believed to have started in the Busbys Flat area on Friday night.
Across the Busbys Flat and Drake fires, which joined together this week, at least 21 homes have been destroyed.
More buildings have been damaged, but the NSW Rural Fire Service said numbers would rise as more properties were inspected.
Mr Mustow said the loss of a local timber mill would hurt 30 employees and have a “big impact on our community”.
Allan Robertson lost his home at Rappville. He has been left with just the clothes he was wearing, his phone and “my worst thongs”.
He said he was uninsured and his partner was in palliative care.
“It was just like a massive fireball. There was nothing you could do. The heat was horrendous,” he told Network Ten.
Authorities believe the fire that ripped through the village of Rappville this week might have been deliberately lit, in what NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott has described as a “bastard act”.
— Carol Duncan (@carolduncan) October 9, 2019
NSW Police and fire investigators have formed a strike force to determine the cause of the fire.
“In the absence of any other obvious cause, we always default to being suspicious, and we work through a very thorough process,”Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told the Nine Network.
“We’ve got to call it out – it’s a heinous crime, a criminal act.”
On Thursday, the Insurance Council of Australia declared the Rappville fire and the blazes at Busby Flat and Drake its second official bushfire catastrophe in just five weeks.
ICA chief executive Rob Whelan said the council would set up a disaster hotline and send disaster recovery specialists into the affected areas.
“It may take several weeks before insurers are able to quantify the extent of insured losses,” Mr Whelan said.
The RFS said residents likely would not be able to return to their homes for several days given trees are down across roads and there are power lines on the ground.
NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance tweeted that stretches of rail line had been damaged by fire, with the Rappville Rail Bridge destroyed. The Brisbane-Sydney rail line is expected to be out of action for at least five days.
📷 Some of the aftermath of the devastating bushfires currently burning in Northern NSW.
Stretches of the North Coast rail line have crippled by fire, with the Rappville Rail Bridge destroyed.
Thinking of all those affected by bushfires across the state. pic.twitter.com/RKj00RvMwP
— Andrew Constance MP (@AndrewConstance) October 8, 2019
The RFS also warned that even though better weather is forecast, the fires could flare again. Rain is expected in the burned areas of northern NSW and south-eastern Queensland at the end of this week.
It is the third bushfire catastrophe declared this year by the ICA in 2019.
The ICA said insurers had received 300 claims covering $20 million in insured losses from last month’s fires in northern NSW and south-east Queensland.
In March, the ICA declared a catastrophe for the Bunyip bushfires in eastern Victoria. It said insurers had received 432 claims, with losses estimated at $31.9 million.
The first catastrophe for 2019 was declared in February following the Townsville floods. Insurers have received more than 30,000 claims from that incident, with losses of $1.26 billion.
The Insurance Council of Australia’s disaster hotline is 1800 734 621. More information here.