A blood-red sky in central Sydney was an angry pointer to infernos raging on the city’s outskirts, as unseasonably high temperatures and ferocious winds triggered the worst bushfire emergency in New South Wales for more than a decade.
Hundreds of homes were feared to have been destroyed in 95 separate fires, including 34 burning out of control. With the flames not expected to subside for several days, the state premier, Barry O’Farrell, said that “if we get through that without the loss of life, we should thank God for miracles”.
The commissioner of the New South Wales Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, said it had been a “very difficult and dangerous day … [of] extraordinary fire behaviour”, with flames travelling vast distances because of the winds. “This is as bad as it gets,” he said. “You’re talking destructive, damaging, and people losing everything they own.”
In Sydney, the air hung heavy with smoke and ash from fires blazing in the Blue Mountains, to the city’s west. The plume of smoke even showed up on weather radar. With familiar landmarks such as the Opera House bathed in an ethereal orange hue, health authorities warned people with respiratory problems to stay indoors.
The bushfire season has begun ominously early this year – the temperature reached 34 degrees Celsius, although summer is officially still six weeks off – and follows Australia’s warmest 12 months on record. Although today was forecast to be much cooler, the crippling heat is expected to return at the weekend.
The deputy commissioner, Rob Rogers, told ABC television there were fears people would be found dead inside their destroyed homes. “We will be counting the toll of this tomorrow, and indeed days to come, as far as the real impact of this fire,” he said.