The death toll in NSW from the bushfire crisis rose to 17 after David Harrison, a 47-year-old from Goulburn, died from a cardiac arrest on Saturday while helping a friend defend his rural property at Batlow in the Snowy Mountains. Four firefighters were injured at the weekend, including one who had serious burns to his hands.
Initial estimates from the Rural Fire Service late on Sunday put the number of homes destroyed over the weekend at 60, taking the total lost in NSW so far this bushfire season to 1425.
But NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said that property losses across broad areas of the state, including the South Coast and Southern Highlands, were likely to rise into the hundreds. “[There is] a lot of damage and destruction,” he said.
Nine fires remained at a “watch and act” warning late on Sunday, which Mr Fitzsimmons said was indicative of “ongoing fire behaviour and potential … in and around lots of communities”.
While the milder conditions offer a reprieve, he warned people against complacency as temperatures were forecast to rise again later this week. “The last thing we can afford is for us to become complacent,” he said. “Complacency kills.”
Premier Gladys Berejiklian also warned NSW was in “uncharted territory” as townships that had never experienced the threat of bushfire were at risk of “being completely wiped out”.
“The weather activity we’re seeing, the extent and spread of the fires, the speed [and] the way they’re attacking communities that have never seen fire is unprecedented. We have to accept that,” she said.
Kilometres of bushland was reduced to smouldering debris near the town of Kangaroo Valley. Several properties were destroyed, while a National Parks and Wildlife vehicle crashed after hitting a fallen tree.
On the South Coast, residents who fled Eden recalled a terrifying ordeal due to “thick debris and ash everywhere”, making it difficult to see and breathe during the evacuation. “It’s been chaotic – we don’t know what’s going on,” one resident said.
A day after announcing the call up of 3000 reservists, Prime Minister Scott Morrison sidestepped questions about the cost of the bushfires but warned: “The fires are not over. The crisis is not over. There are months to go. Sadly there will still be more cost that will be incurred.”
The number of insurance claims for property losses from the bushfires are predicted to climb rapidly over the coming days. So far, 86 per cent of the 5860 insurance claims – totalling $431 million – made across the four states ravaged by bushfires this season have been in NSW.
“We are expecting those figures to rise rapidly over the next few days and weeks as formal assessments by RFS are completed across NSW,” Insurance Council of Australia spokesman Campbell Fuller said.
The council’s most recent figures do not include properties lost in the last two days in NSW.
While bushfires disrupted transmission from the Snowy Hydro scheme on Saturday, NSW managed to avoid significant damage to power lines and large-scale blackouts amid record electricity demand.
Bushfire-hit areas on the South Coast such as between Batemans Bay and Moruya remained without electricity on Sunday morning. Some areas have not had power restored since the huge blazes tore through the popular tourist region on New Year’s Eve, destroying hundreds of homes.
A large number of roads south of Nowra, around Braidwood and in and around the Snowy Mountains remained shut on Sunday. The closures included sections of the Princes and Snowy Mountains highways.
In Sydney, the M5 motorway in the south-west was temporarily closed in both directions at Hammondville due to thick smoke from a nearby bushfire.
Matt O’Sullivan is City Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Peter Hannam writes on environment issues for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.