Adding to the panic and confusion, police announced that all communications would be lost overnight on the South Coast between Nowra and Moruya, affecting mobile phone coverage, landlines and internet connections.
The Princes Highway remains closed between Moruya and Batemans Bay due to fires still simmering along the highway, falling trees and powerlines. Powerlines have fallen onto the road near Mogo, where police blockades are in place.
Five fires were burning at emergency level at 9.30pm.
The road closures and fires have left many residents and holidaymakers stranded. A traffic commander in Moruya said he’s heard “there’s a lot of people sleeping in cars tonight” as motels are fully booked.
Power outages in the region mean pubs and homes are relying on candlelight.
The fires, which were caused by lightning strikes on southern NSW over the past few days, flared up with the westerly wind on Tuesday morning and quickly moved towards the coast before a gusty southerly change in the middle of the day created new havoc.
As the sun rose, out-of-control fires in the southern part of NSW threatened towns in the Snowy Mountains, Bega Valley and the south coast from Nowra to Lakes Entrance in Victoria. By 6am, cars were streaming towards the relative safety of coastal towns such as Bermagui and Batemans Bay and residents of towns cut off by the fire were told to head to the beach.
Campers evacuated the national parks and headed towards Bega, Bermagui and Moruya, where the motels filled up, queues of cars filed out of the petrol stations and the showgrounds and surf clubs were fashioned as evacuation areas.
Up to 5000 people evacuated to the Bermagui surf club, 500 to the Broulee surf club and 150 to the club at Tathra. Chief executive of the Surf Lifesaving NSW Steven Pearce said there were reports of people with breathing difficulties and emergency services were trying to get oxygen to them.
Tollien Kelly, the caretaker at Moruya’s Luhana Motel, said there was not enough room to accommodate people fleeing from the fires. “We’re chockers,” Ms Kelly said. “I’m trying to squeeze people in where I can. We’ve got horses here and people are calling in to bring chickens, dogs and things like that.”
Emergency warnings were issued for the Currawan fire between Nowra, Braidwood and Batemans Bay; the Clyde Mountain fire between Braidwood and Batemans Bay; the Big Belima Creek fire west of Bodalla; the Badja Forest Road fire east of Cooma; the Weir Road fire in the Timbillica State Forest; the Greens Valley fire east of Albury; and the Dunns Road fire in the Ellerslie Range, south of the Snowy Mountains Highway.
As the westerly picked up, two fingers of flame extended from the Badja Forest Road fire towards Bermagui on the south coast and claimed the towns of Quaama and Cobargo on the way. Further north, the town of Mogo near Batemans Bay was hit by the 227,000 hectare Currawan fire, where a fire-generated thunderstorm created erratic winds over the Shoalhaven.
A power outage from Batemans Bay to Bermagui caused widespread blackouts and mobile phone outages.
Some towns in the Bega Valley and Shoalhaven were left without drinking water when fires destroyed their disinfection facilities and contaminated the water supply with ash. Thick smoke
prevented the emergency evacuation of burns victims and a premature baby.
A care centre for the physically disabled at Quaama was evacuated.
Jane McGregor, who works at Nardy House respite care in Quaama, said her team managed to transfer four seriously disabled residents as fires bore down on the facility with the help of fire crews and move residents to hospitals in Bega and Eden.
“We couldn’t just take them out,” Ms McGregor said. “There was nowhere for these people with profound needs to go. You can’t just leave them in a wheelchair for the next 24 or 48 hours.”
By the early afternoon, the outskirts of Batemans Bay, where thousands had sought refuge, were ablaze and embers rained over the town.
Around 5pm an emergency alert was issued for the Arizona Road fire at Charmhaven, 15 kilometres south of Tuggerah on the Central Coast, which was spreading towards more populated areas.
Meanwhile in the small town of Tumbarumba at the foot of the Snowy Mountains, the local New Year’s Day rodeo was cancelled as fires north of the town burnt out of control and several properties to the north of the town were lost. A local service station worker said shops were seeing “panic buying”.
The weather is forecast to improve in the latter half of the week before conditions deteriorate again on Saturday.
Harriet Alexander is a reporter for the Herald.
Laura is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Natassia is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.
Janek Drevikovsky is an intern journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.