NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian is “hugely relieved” that no more lives were lost amid a day of catastrophic fire danger in the state.
However the NSW Rural Fire Service have confirmed at least 50 homes were damaged or destroyed on Tuesday, with RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons admitting firefighters were “deflated” by the losses.
A strong southerly front on Tuesday caused worsening conditions for firefighters battling “volatile” conditions in NSW, with high winds sparking 300 new fire fronts and destroying more properties.
“A lot of detailed work, a lot of building impact assessment teams will be getting out in and around these fire grounds, in these burnt-out areas, when it is safe to do so, trying to take stock of exactly what has been lost, where it’s been lost,” Mr Fitzsimmons told reporters on Wednesday.
“We will update people not just on what’s been lost, but, most importantly, critically importantly, for communities, the firefighters themselves, who feel so deflated, who feel such sadness and despair at seeing so much loss.”
Strong winds have pushed the fire at Hillville, in northern NSW near Taree, in a northwesterly direction along with blazes in other regions, as fires destroyed hundreds of thousands of hectares of bush.
No lives were lost on Tuesday, authorities say, and no one is missing. However three people have died since the fires ramped up on Friday and more than 300 homes have been destroyed since that time.
At one point, 15 fires were simultaneously at “emergency” level as Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter and Illawarra-Shoalhaven had the “catastrophic” rating.
“I have to confess to being hugely relieved this morning that yesterday our amazing volunteers and emergency service personnel withstood the catastrophic conditions and did manage to save life and property,” Ms Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday.
NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott said the result was “a dividend paid by the great preparation” of the NSW Rural Fire Service.
NSW remains in a state of emergency, with high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity causing treacherous conditions for some 3000 firefighters battling blazes. A statewide total fire ban is in place.
Fortunately heavy smoke on Tuesday morning served as an “insulation blanket” to the strong winds moving across the Northern Tablelands so several fires did not flare up as much as feared, Fitzsimmons said.
But he warned the challenge ahead remained immense.
There are currently 73 fires burning across NSW, 50 of which are uncontained.
No fires as at 9am on Wednesday were at “emergency” alert level after the 150,000 hectare Liberation Trail fire near Coffs Harbour was downgraded to “watch and act” level, alongside 16 other fires.
Hundreds of trucks were out in the field, along with 80 aircraft.
“We were fortunate the catastrophic ranges were not sustained for the long durations that were originally expected,” Fitzsimmons said.
“But the amount of dense smoke that effectively blanketed northeastern NSW served as an insulation layer, served as a buffer.”
As at 3pm on Tuesday, the Insurance Council of Australia said insurers had received 360 claim applications from catastrophe-hit NSW mid-north coast areas, with initial losses totalling $40 million.
While conditions are expected to ease on Wednesday, Mr Fitzsimmons said a forecast for severe weather into the weekend and another burst of hot air next week means “we simply aren’t going to get the upper hand on all of these fires”.
The armed forces are still standing by to provide support, including for search and rescue operations and other logistical duties.
Some 600 schools were closed although most are expected to reopen, apart from about 140 state schools, mainly in the north.
Australian actor Russell Crowe, meanwhile, said his Nana Glen property near Coffs Harbour was “hit” by the bushfires but his family was safe.