Fire authorities have warned the worst is still to come after Sydney was saved from a catastrophic crisis on Tuesday in the most extreme bushfire conditions ever faced.
Major devastation was avoided as firefighters and air bombers co-ordinated swiftly to smother emerging blazes across NSW and prevent the loss of many more homes and lives.
But the worst might not be over, with the focus shifting on Wednesday to Queensland and warnings of a hot and windy summer that could impact the east coast for weeks and months.
Early estimates are that about 50 properties were destroyed or damaged across NSW on Tuesday, adding to about 200 properties consumed by flames in NSW and Queensland since Friday.
Exhausted firefighters faced 300 new fires on Tuesday alone, battling blazes well into the night, as greater Sydney, greater Hunter and Illawarra-Shoalhaven endured catastrophic fire danger. An overnight wind change threatened to fan potentially deadly bushfires in a new direction.
The record fire front devoured more than a million hectares of land, blanketed Sydney in smoke and came dangerously close to the urban fringes.
A sudden blaze at Turramurra, on Sydney’s upper north shore, briefly burned at emergency level before a plane was quickly diverted and doused the area in pink retardant.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison praised the thousands of prepared firefighters and volunteers who used technology, intelligence and information sharing to co-ordinate counterattacks from Sydney to the mid-north NSW coast.
As of 7.30AM (ADST), 73 fires were burning across the state, 37 yet to be contained, with none at ’emergency warning’. About 150 schools in NSW were to remain closed on Wednesday.
The Sunshine State is on Wednesday bracing for its most extreme conditions to date, with evacuations of the luxury Spicers Peak Lodge resort west of Brisbane at 4AM (Queensland time).
Queensland’s fire threat is expected to intensify as a front brings a wind change and increased temperatures. Firefighters are hoping containment lines will hold as they battle more than 60 blazes across the state.
Conditions in NSW are expected to ease on Wednesday, but RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said a weekend forecast for severe weather and another burst of hot air next week meant “we simply aren’t going to get the upper hand on all of these fires”.
NSW remains in a state of emergency with total fire bans in place. Mr Fitzsimmons warned the challenge ahead remained “enormous”.
“All these fires … are still subject to the influence of this strong southerly change that’s moving across the fire ground, which will impact and influence fire behaviour, create volatile and potentially dangerous circumstances,” Mr Fitzsimmons said.
“The enormity of the task to bring these fires properly under control, to consolidate them, to get around them and mop them up is enormous.”
There were no people missing as of Tuesday night, he said.
On Wednesday morning, NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she was “hugely relieved” after no more lives were lost. She praised the “amazing volunteers and emergency service personnel” who “withstood the catastrophic conditions”.
NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott said the result was “a dividend paid by the great preparation” of the NSW Rural Fire Service.
Bushfire expert Ross Bradstock told the ABC the east coast was locked into a dangerous weather pattern that suggested a summer of flames.
Major bushfires continue to burn at Taree on the NSW mid-north coast as residents at the town’s packed evacuation centres wait anxiously for news on their homes.
A “watch and act” alert is in place for the Hillville Road fire south of Taree, which has burnt through almost 22,000 hectares.
“It ain’t over, it’s as simple as that,” said Mr Bradstock, director of the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfires at the University of Wollongong.
“It looks like we’re locked in this pattern at the moment of no rain and one or two major cold fronts a week.”
These cold fronts have hot, gusty conditions in front of them, increasing the risk of fires.
Queensland braces for extreme conditions
A luxury resort and a prison have been evacuated ahead of scorching temperatures and high winds expected to fan more than 60 fires burning across Queensland.
A large swathe of the state’s south faces severe fire danger on Wednesday. That includes the drought-stricken Darling Downs and Granite Belt, the Wide Bay and Burnett region, and the south-east coast, taking in Brisbane and the Gold and Sunshine Coasts.
A central Queensland mayor says the bushfire that destroyed 13 homes in the last few days behaved like no blaze anyone in the region has ever seen before.
Livingstone Shire Council Mayor Bill Ludwig says containment lines at the Cobraball fire near Yeppoon are holding, but that the erratic fire is being fanned by increasing wind gusts and high temperatures.
“Nobody has seen a fire that has reacted like this – we’ve had bad fires before, but nothing that’s moved this quickly, this dramatically,” he told ABC news on Wednesday.
Major fires are burning west of Brisbane, including at Maryvale on the Southern Downs where the five-star Spicers Peak Lodge has been emptied as a fire approaches.
A ‘leave now’ warning was issued for the lodge before 4am, with police door-knocking the property to get staff out. No guests had been staying overnight.
On Tuesday, inmates from the low-security Palen Creek Correctional Centre, about 100 kilometres south-east of the lodge, were moved to another prison.
Prepare to leave warnings are in place for many other blazes, but so far no other people have been ordered to flee.
The Cobraball fire, near Yeppoon in central Queensland, continues to burn out of control. Authorities will be watching it closely after it destroyed 11 houses in recent days.
Large fires in the Scenic Rim region, some of which have been burning west of the Gold Coast since September, are also being closely monitored.
Weather conditions will leave about 1000 firefighters with a difficult job on Wednesday, as winds to swing from northerly to south, south-westerly later in the morning.
Strong gusts are expected to accompany the wind change, and temperatures near some fire grounds are expected to hit six to eight degrees above average.
Fresh crews have arrived from interstate and New Zealand to give exhausted local crews a break after five days battling blazes.
Fire authorities say containment lines around major blazes will be tested with the wind change.
Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said Queenslanders must comply if authorities told them to get out.
“Your safety is paramount,” she said on Tuesday.
Health officials have warned vulnerable people to stay indoors. Air quality is expected to plunge again on Wednesday as smoke from the fires in both states spreads.