Australia’s horror bushfire season reached new heights at the weekend with raging ‘tornado-like’ infernos wiping entire towns off the map and leaving hundreds of families homeless this Christmas.
Exhausted firefighters are working tirelessly to strengthen bushfire containment lines before conditions spiral later in the week, with the worst still yet to come.
‘Yes they’re fatigued – physically fatigued, emotionally fatigued – but they know their communities are under threat and they’re going to do all they can,’ NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
‘Particularly over this Christmas-New Year period to get some of this critical work underway and shore up as much protection as they can.’
The 460,000 hectare Gospers Mountains megablaze spread to communities, including Bilpin (pictured)
Dozens of homes are feared lost in the Blue Mountains after the blaze tore through on Saturday night, fuelled by intense weather conditions. Pictured: Tutti Fruitti Fruit Shop
At least 100 buildings were destroyed across New South Wales on Saturday alone, as the total of homes wrecked nears 1,000 for the season so far.
The towns of Balmoral and Buxton were incinerated by fires, with residents due to return this afternoon to inspect what is left of their homes.
Bushfires also took a heavy toll on South Australia, where 86 homes, 404 outbuildings and 227 vehicles were gutted in the Adelaide Hills.
SA Premier Steven Marshall described it as a ‘devastating’ 48 hours for the state.
Adelaide is expected to have a top of 33C on Monday before the mercury again climbs to about 40C by Saturday.
The Bureau of Meteorology said there was zero chance of any rain in the coming week, with conditions unlikely to improve until at least February.
In the Adelaide Hills, 86 homes have been lost, including this one in Woodside (pictured)
As of Monday morning, almost 200 bushfires continued to burn across the country.
The fires claimed the life of Adelaide Hills resident Ron Selth, after NSW Rural Fire Service volunteers Geoff Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer were killed when a tree fell on their truck while fighting the Green Wattle Creek in the Southern Highlands on Thursday night.
The NSW bushfire crisis is far from over with fears more homes could be lost after the Grose Valley fire in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney flared up to emergency levels for the second time within 24 hours.
‘Fire activity is increasing in the area of Govetts Leap Road at Blackheath. Residents south of Govetts Leap Road should seek shelter as fire approaches. Protect yourself from the heat of the fire,’ the NSW Rural Fire Service tweeted early Monday morning.
NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned more fires may flare up later in the week with Sydney forecast to soar past temperatures in the mid 30s next Saturday.
Mr Fitzsimmons said firefighters would take advantage of better conditions this week, which should include temperatures in the mid-20s, higher humidity and easterly winds.
The biggest focus will be on preparing vulnerable Blue Mountains communities ahead of hotter and more challenging conditions returning next weekend.
AUSTRALIA BURNS: THE DAMAGE
* Almost 200 fires burning across the country
* 86 homes in Adelaide destroyed
* Seven people have been killed
* More than 900 homes lost in this year’s bushfire season: NSW – 789, Queensland – 40, South Australia – 86, Western Australia – one
* Thousands of outbuildings destroyed or damaged, stock and crops destroyed
* 2000 koalas feared killed
NEW SOUTH WALES
* 110 fires, of which almost 60 are uncontained
* 2 volunteer firefighters, Geoff Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer, killed as well as four others on the Mid-North Coast – Vivian Chaplain, 69, and George Nole, Julie Fletcher, 63, and an unnamed 58-year-old man
* 100 buildings destroyed over weekend alone
* Smoke continues to affect Sydney
– Huge Gospers Mountain blaze northwest of Sydney, areas hardest hit include Lithgow and along the Bells Line of Road in the upper Blue Mountains
– Green Wattle Creek fire southwest of the city, devastating Wollondilly Shire villages of Buxton and Bargo, and wiping out small town of Balmoral
– Currowan blaze on the South Coast, north of Batemans Bay, has hit communities near Nerriga
* Two blazes still burning uncontrolled in Tambo Crossing in East Gippsland and Hotspur, Digby, in the Western District
* Bushfires in East Gippsland burning since Thursday
* Cooler conditions have given firefighters a reprieve
* Smoke from the fires and from NSW expected to make air quality hazardous
* Huge fire burning in Adelaide Hills, destroying 86 homes so far
* One killed (Ron Selth, 69), three more in hospital with burns
* 25,000 hectares burnt within a 127km perimeter
* 72 homes confirmed lost along with 404 other buildings and 227 vehicles over the weekend
* Significant losses to crops, including vineyards, and hundreds of sheep killed
* Most concern centred on difficult terrain around the Kangaroo Creek Reservoir at Castambul
* 1,700 homes with no power
* About 60 fires burning within containment lines across the state
* Severe fire conditions in the Central Highlands and Coalfields and Upper Flinders region in central Queensland
* Cooler conditions, some rain expected around Christmas Eve
* Smoke haze from NSW fires
* Lives and homes were threatened by bushfires in Perth’s Hills region around Roleystone in the city’s southeast and a massive blaze at Yanchep, north of Perth, last week before being downgraded
* Firefighters battled heatwave conditions for much of the six-day fire, saving thousands of properties
* One house and a Yanchep petrol station were destroyed; about 13,000 hectares were burnt
* Two bushfires north of Launceston were brought under control at the end of November
* NT last saw major fires in September when there were nine active fire grounds.
Before and after photos of Govetts Leap Lookout, Blackheath
‘With the easing weather conditions today, crews are working hard to strengthen containment lines,’ the RFS said in a statement on Sunday.
‘Planning is underway for large scale back burns today in the Blue Mountains to contain the Grose Valley Fire.’
Homes destroyed so far this bushfire season is nearing 1,000 with 789 homes in NSW alone.
As of 11pm on Sunday night, almost half of the 98 bush and grass fires burning in NSW were uncontained.
Favourable conditions on Sunday allowed fire authorities to assess the damage in fire-ravaged regions.
A firefighter watches on in the NSW town of Bargo
While the total number of homes lost is yet to be confirmed, the towns of Balmoral in the Southern Highlands and Dargan north of the Blue Mountains have been all but wiped out.
Firefighters said they ran out of water while fighting the fire in Balmoral, despite using water from people’s tanks and pools.
Up to 17 houses were lost in Dargan, a town which has a population of less than 100.
Clarence/Dargan Bushfire Brigade deputy captain Kevin McCusker, 65, estimated that about half of the brigade had lost their homes.
He also lost stock and infrastructure for his nursery business.
‘The firefront just came through as a tornado. We tried to save as many homes as we could, but it was just a wall of flames coming towards you,’ he told The Australian.
It’s understood at least another eight homes were lost in nearby Lithgow.
Devastating new photographs show Saturday night’s carnage as a mega-blaze covering 460,000 hectares spread from Gospers Mountain through to the Blue Mountains, destroying an estimated 20 homes (the Tutti Fruitti shop in Gospers Mountain destroyed by fire)
Premier Gladys Berejiklian says ‘there’s not much left’ in the small town of Balmoral, south-west of Sydney.
The tight-knit community was already reeling after being hit on Thursday when the flames up to 40metres high returned on Saturday.
The number of homes lost in Balmoral on Saturday is yet to be confirmed but is at least a dozen.
One family who stayed behind to defend their property helplessly watched their house and possessions burn to the ground.
The town of Woodside in the Adelaide Hills felt the brunt of bushfires. Pictured is what’s left of a burnt car and boat
Justin said the fire in Balmoral was so fierce that they were unable to save their home (pictured is the gutted remains)
‘We got hit from the east and west at the same time – that’s what made the the property indefensible at that point,’ Balmoral resident Justin told Seven News.
‘We had no chance against that… There is nothing to come back to.’
Balmoral, in the Wingecarribee Shire Council area, consists of about 150 houses with a population of some 400 people.
Smoke from the New South Wales bushfires reached Brisbane (pictured) on Sunday
Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons described the extent of property damage from the weekend’s blazes is ‘significant’.
‘We could be talking about another 100 buildings being added to the state tally so far this season,’ he said on Sunday.
‘We are expecting another heavy toll unfortunately with estimates that property loss could be in the dozens of buildings including homes, outbuildings, sheds and businesses,’ Mr Fitzsimmons said.
The Currawong blaze north of Batemans Bay also raced through communities near Nerriga on Saturday, Mr Fitzsimmons said.
More than 70 homes were lost in the South Australian bushfire on Saturday. Pictured is what’s left of Woodside property
The South Australian bushfires have not only claimed homes and lives but also livestock (pictured in Woodside near Adelaide)
One elderly man unaccounted for in the Dargan area east of Lithgow was located on Sunday morning ‘safe and sound’ at an evacuation centre.
The Greater Sydney basin didn’t reach the forecast catastrophic conditions on Saturday because heavy bushfire smoke acted as insulation to reduce temperatures.
The heavy smoke – which has been causing hazardous air pollution for months – also mitigated the strengthening winds.
‘It was a blessing in terms of preventing the catastrophic conditions reaching their forecast level in the Greater Sydney area,’ Mr Fitzsimmons said.
Firefighters suffered from heat exhaustion on Saturday, with one crew in the Dargan area overcome by chlorine fumes after a building containing the chemical caught alight.
Grieving widows of best mate firefighters killed when a gum tree crushed their truck struggle to come to terms with raising their children without their fathers
The heartbroken wives of two firefighters killed when a falling tree crushed their truck have spoken out about their grief.
Andrew O’Dwyer, 36, and Geoffrey Keaton, 32, died on Thursday night when a burnt gum tree slammed into their fire truck at Buxton, south of Sydney.
Both men had been volunteer members of the Horsley Park Rural Fire Service brigade for more than a decade.
Andrew O’Dwyer (left) and Geoffrey Keaton (right) were killed when their truck rolled off the road after hitting a fallen tree on Thursday night at Buxton, south of Sydney
Jess Hayes (left) said she wants her fiance Geoff Keaton (top) to be remembered as the ‘hero’ he was. Pictured with their son Harvey
Mr Keaton has a young 19-month-old son Harvey, and Mr O’Dwyer has a 19-month-old daughter Charlotte, and two young sons.
On Saturday, Mr O’Dwyer’s wife Melissa, Mr Keaton’s fiancé Jess Hayes, RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons and other fire crew members gathered at Horsley Park RFS Station to pay tribute to the two mates.
‘I am still in denial. It is always in the back of your mind but the boys have always got each other’s back,’ Ms O’Dwyer told the gathering, the Daily Telegraph reported.
Mr O’Dwyer leaves behind his wife Melissa (right), young daughter Charlotte (middle) and two young boys
The grief-stricken mother said her kids now have uncles and aunties in the RFS to look up to.
Ms Hayes described her fiance as a proud dad who would do anything to help his family and friends.
‘He would drive me mad giving up stuff at home to help people… I would give anything for that now,’ she said.
Ms Hayes said she wants her children to be remember their father as the ‘hero’ he was.
Mr Fitzsimmons said Mr Hayes and Mr O’Dwyer would have survived if their truck had been travelling just a second slower or faster.
Just hours before his death, Mr O’Dwyer shared a video of him and a colleague battling a blaze.
Ms O’Dwyer said she is still in denial over her husband Andrew’s death
Ms Hayes described Geoff as a proud dad who would do anything to help his family and friends
Mr Keaton had risen to the role of deputy captain after joining the Horsley Park RFS brigade in 2006.
After Saturday’s emotional gathering, members of the 68-strong brigade put aside their grief to get back on their trucks and help battle blazes amid catastrophic conditions.
The brigade had three crews fighting fires with their trucks emblazoned with ‘In memory of Geoff Keaton’ and ‘In memory of Andrew O’Dwyer’ on their fronts.
‘In true Horsley Park spirit, our crew are heading out today as part of a Cumberland Zone Strike Team in memory of Geoff and Andrew,’ a post on the Horsley Park RFS Facebook page said.
‘To all crews in the field today, stay safe and look after each other.’
NSW premier Gladys Berejiklian paid tribute to the 2,000 volunteer firefighters who were deployed across the state on Saturday, saying the death of Mr Keaton and Mr O’Dwyer had rocked them and their families.
‘Especially after the tragic loss of Geoff and Andrew yesterday, our heart goes out to the volunteers who are in the field,’ Ms Berejiklian said.
‘No doubt their loved ones will be worried about what they might face today as they leave the front door.
Mr O’Dwyer (far left) stands in front of the truck he was riding in on Thursday night with his Horsley Park RFS colleagues and Australian Idol runner up Shannon Noll
Mr Keaton and Mr O’Dwyer’s were killed after their RFS truck (pictured) crashed into a fallen tree and rolled
‘We say our thoughts and prayers are with you, we’re deeply grateful. And we appreciate today especially every firefighter, every loved one, every family member carries a heavy heart with them.’
Opposition leader Anthony Albanese criticised Prime Minister Scott Morrison for saying earlier in December that volunteers ‘want to be’ battling the relentless blazes.
He renewed calls for volunteer firefighters to be compensated through tax breaks, one-off payments or special leave entitlements.
‘They do not want to be there. They would rather be at home safe with their families,’ Mr Albanese said.
‘I met one person yesterday who has worked every single day since September. He began fighting the fires at Tenterfield and he is now fighting to defend his local community.
‘The problem with this government is that it does not seem to be prepared to acknowledge that this is not business as usual.’
Firefighters laid flowers and embraced one another at the Horsley Park Rural Fire Brigade in Sydney on Friday
The helmets of Mr O’Dwyer and Mr Keaton were laid out at the Horsley Park Rural Fire Brigade
Firefighters are hoping a week of cooler conditions forecast will help them get on top of the fires (firefighters battle a blaze on a property near Gospers Mountain)
A number of firefighters were taken to hospital for treatment.
Mr Fitzsimmons warned the worse was still to come this summer, with ‘far more risk and exposure as we head through the hotter months’.
‘We’re not expecting any meaningful rain to start bringing a meaningful easing of conditions on these fire grounds until late January or early February,’ he said.
In South Australia, extreme fire conditions across the state will continue on Monday with a severe warning and total fire ban for the Mount Lofty Ranges.
More than 25,000 hectares have been burnt within a 127-kilometre perimeter.
‘There’s still lots of pockets of bush burning, there’s lots of trees that are hot and smouldering and it’s a very dangerous place to be,’ SA Fire and Rescue Deputy Chief Andrew Stark said.
Horrific footage from the Blue Mountains shows a wall of fire down a mountain face as wild fires continue to ravage NSW
Balmoral in the NSW Southern Highlands was ‘all but wiped out’ by the Green Wattle Creek firestorm on Saturday
Fires continued to burn out of control in the Adelaide Hills early Monday morning.
Areas affected include Cudlee Creek, Gumeracha, Lobethal, Woodside, Mount Torrens, Chain of Ponds, Inglewood, Castambul, Paracombe, Millbrook and Montacute in the Mount Lofty Ranges
‘Take action now as this bushfire may threaten your safety. If you are not prepared, leave now and if the path is clear, go to a safer place. Do not enter this area as conditions are dangerous,’ the Country Fire Service posted on Facebook.
Livestock and several vineyards have been lost in the devastating blazes in the Adelaide Hills.
Tilbrook Estates, run by James Tilbrook and his wife Annabelle was wiped out, including most of their stock.
‘Just one charred (empty) barrel left. All the bottled wine has exploded. The heat was that intense it melted empty bottles. All the equipment is fire damaged/ stuffed,’ Mr Tilbrook posted on Facebook.
‘At the moment still trying to process it all. Our biggest problem is that we have lost our livelihood.’
His friend Jason Wright has set a GoFundMe page to help the Tilbrooks rebuild.
‘With a multi-million dollar mortgage, they have no way to generate income to pay their bills while their winery is re-built,’ the page states.
‘And re-build? Sure they can re-plant, but James’s oldest grapes clones date back to his first planting in 1999. This is irreplaceable. They have lost 90 per cent of their vines and all 45 acres of their farm is destroyed.
‘The probability is that the small amount of vines left will probably be smoke tainted and therefore it may be 2-3 years before his vineyard can be income generating again.’
Meanwhile, two bushfires in the southwest and and southeast parts of Victoria remain under ‘watch and act’ warnings, the state gets ready to face smoky conditions on Monday.
Mild conditions during the weekend helped firefighters strengthen containment lines, but two blazes were still burning uncontrolled in Tambo Crossing and Hotspur, Digby.
Temperatures dipped on Sunday with about 24C in East Gippsland, and a milder 22C in Melbourne, after a top of 44C in the Victorian capital on Friday.
Adelaide Hills bushfires destroy more than 70 homes and leave man, 69, dead
More than 70 homes have been destroyed in South Australia’s devastating bushfires that claimed the life of a 69-year-old engineer.
Ron Selth, who died in the Cudlee Creek bushfire in the Adelaide Hills over the weekend, has been remembered by his family and friends as a doting and generous man.
‘He will be remembered for his incredible – sometimes injury-causing – hugs and will be deeply missed by his family and his many friends,’ Mr Selth’s family said in a statement.
‘Some people give firm hugs – I don’t know what’s beyond firm, but that’s what Dad occasionally delivered. When he gave a hug, he meant it.’
The grandfather’s body was found on his Charleston property after the bushfires swept through last Friday.
Ron Selth (pictured), 69, who died in the Cudlee Creek bushfire in the Adelaide Hills over the weekend, is being remembered as a doting and generous man
Mr Selth’s body was found on his Charleston property after the deadly bushfires swept through last Friday
‘Ron was a loving, optimistic and generous man, who valued his relationships with family and friends more than anything else,’ the family told The Advertiser.
‘He built a highly successful engineering business that contributed to the design of thousands of buildings in SA, mainly in the Adelaide Hills, and is often described as having a unique and unforgettable character.’
Neighbour Michael McFarlane told 9News Mr Selth was a ‘nice bloke’.
‘I didn’t know the gentleman was up there. Now, if I had have known, I would have jumped in this machine behind me, went and picked him up and brought him back here as the fire was getting closer,’ he added.
Mr Selth left behind his partner Suzy, his children Luke, Jasmine and Johanna, and his six grandchildren.
A number of other people remain injured, and 3000 properties in the Adelaide Hills remain without power.
The number of homes destroyed in the Cudlee Creek bushfire has risen to 72, as well as 404 ‘outbuildings’ on properties and 227 vehicles.
South Australian Premier Steven Marshall said there were ‘scenes of absolute devastation’ as residents returned to their homes that had been reduced to rubble.
Emergency crews have also suffered injuries with 23 firefighters injured, one seriously, and two police officers needing treatment.
The number of homes destroyed in the Cudlee Creek bushfire has risen to 72, as well as 404 ‘outbuildings’ on properties and 227 vehicles
Building destroyed by a fire in Lobethal in the Adelaide Hills, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia
Meanwhile, smoke from the Adelaide Hills bushfire had dropped the city’s air quality rating to poor.
The Environment Protection Authority says air quality readings are improving but parts of the hills and metropolitan area remain affected by bushfire smoke.
The situation on Sunday was further exacerbated by an early morning temperature inversion layer which kept smoke low to the ground.
The EPA said anyone with health issues or concerns should stay inside with windows and doors closed.
A watch and act warning remains in place for the blaze, with the Country Fire Service reporting some renewed fire activity within the 127-kilometre perimeter.
The fire has burnt through more than 25,000 hectares and destroyed at least 15 homes.
Before it was sparked on Friday, the Bureau of Meteorology also reported that smoke from the NSW bushfires had made its way to Adelaide.
The massive Cudlee Creek fire in the Adelaide Hills has ravaged 25,000 hectares of country.
Another fatality was also reported at Lameroo when a car hit a tree sparking a grass fire.
‘There has been devastation right across the Adelaide Hills and the extent of that is yet to be seen,’ he said.
‘Many people in the affected areas haven’t had the opportunity to go back and assess the damage and I think there will be some pretty devastating scenes ahead of Christmas.’
‘We know in addition to those losses there are very significant losses of livestock, animals, crops and vineyards.
‘It’s going to be a scene of devastation, especially for those people in the Adelaide Hills who’ve been most affected.’
The cause of the Cudlee Creek fire is still being investigated but is believed to have been caused by a branch falling on a powerline.
A Woodside resident battles a fire as it crosses Ridge Road at Woodside in the Adelaide Hills in Adelaide, South Australia