A STATE of emergency was declared in New South Wales yesterday amid warnings that bushfires which have already destroyed nearly 200 homes in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, will intensify in the coming days and threaten outer suburbs of Australia's largest city.
With dangerously hot and windy weather forecast for the next three days, the Commissioner of the Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, said the state was facing its worst fire conditions since the 1960s. "The reality is, however, these conditions are a whole new ball game," he said yesterday.
While dozens of fires are burning across the state, three large blazes in the Blue Mountains are causing most concern.
If they join up to form a single mammoth fire front – which Mr Fitzsimmons said could "very easily" happen – the entire area, home to 76,000 people, could be in danger, requiring mass evacuations. There are also fears that flames could jump the Nepean River, at the foot of the mountains, and threaten densely populated suburbs of western Sydney, such as Penrith. After three days of milder weather, temperatures are expected to reach 38C in Penrith today, while winds of up to 60mph are forecast for Wednesday.
As residents of the worst-hit towns of Springwood and Winmalee returned to comb through the ruins of their homes, the NSW Premier, Barry O'Farrell, announced the state of emergency, which empowers the emergency services to carry out forced evacuations.
More than 2,000 men and women are battling to contain the blazes. On Saturday night, they were joined by the prime minister, Tony Abbott.
As of last night, 69 fires were still burning, 22 of them out of control.
Around the state, the fires – which took hold amid hot, windy weather last Thursday – have already destroyed 208 homes and damaged 122.
The only fatality so far was a 63-year-old man who died of a heart attack on the Central Coast, north of Sydney, while trying to protect his house.