Residents and authorities are bracing for the widespread aftermath of deadly and destructive fires that lashed large parts of New South Wales and Victoria yesterday.
Four deaths have already been confirmed, but there are fears that number will rise.
Weather conditions have given firefighters a small window of respite this morning, but the gradually clearing smoke is just another cruel blow as the loss of homes, schools and other structures are realised.
Details of the destruction have filtered through slowly given the NSW South Coast has been largely cut off from telecommunications and power, but early indications reveal Cobargo, an inland village between Bega and Batemans Bay, was hit the hardest.
Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told reporters this morning there were “heavy tolls” in terms of property losses in that area where a 72-year-old man remains missing and is feared dead, while 50 structures have already been reported as destroyed in Lake Conjola to the north of Batemans Bay.
More than 110 fires continue to burn across NSW on the first day of the new decade.
“Not only are we seeing outbuildings and homes, but we’re seeing considerable community infrastructure (destroyed),” Mr Fitzsimmons said.
“We’re looking at businesses, halls, there’s reports of a number of schools, two or three schools that have been heavily impacted.”
Bega Valley Shire Mayor Kristy McBain on Tuesday confirmed dozens of losses in her district after two days in which bushfires blackened the sky.
Mr Fitzsimmons said damage had also been wrought in the Snowy Mountains and towards Tumbarumba as well as on the NSW Central Coast.
Property inspectors will tour fire sites across NSW today and authorities will seek to clear and open arterial roads.
However, dangerous fire conditions are expected to return to the South Coast on Saturday.
“We are assuming that on Saturday weather conditions will be at least as bad as what they were yesterday,” Premier Gladys Berejiklian said.
“That is something all of us have to brace ourselves for.”
Meanwhile, major roads, including several parts of the Princes Highway, are likely to remain closed for some time due to hazards.
The wife of Patrick Salway, the man who was killed alongside his father while defending their property, gave a glimpse of the family’s unimaginable anguish through a Facebook post.
“We are broken,” expecting mother Renee Salway wrote. “I will see you again Patrick, my best friend.”
In Victoria, residents and summer vacationers at the East Gippsland town of Mallacoota have returned to shore after being forced to seek refuge on boats and on beaches.
Similar to the terrifying and suffocating red haze that descended on the NSW South Coast, those caught in the apocalyptic conditions as the morning sunlight resembled a night sky shielded their faces with clothing from the fire that is now about 100,000 hectares in size.
Four people remain missing in Victoria as two emergency level alerts have been downgraded, but a significant risk remains with forecast worsening conditions.
The warning for Buchan moved to a watch-and-act alert on Wednesday morning, while the fire in the Upper Snowy area was recategorised to an advice alert.
“The cooler weather has slowed the movement of fire however the fire is still active (with) a risk of spot fires and embers,” the alert for Buchan, Gelantipy, Suggan Buggan, Timbarra, W Tree and Wulgulmerang reads. “The weather predicted for Saturday could result in significant fire movement.”
Residents have been urged to prepare themselves and their properties. Across Victoria, five emergency warnings remain in place including four in East Gippsland from Bruthen to Mallacoota and one for a blaze at Corryong in northeast Victoria on the NSW border.
The destructive bushfires have burnt through more than half a million hectares, and lightning continues to spark new blazes.
Three fires in East Gippsland have already joined and others are spreading across the NSW-Victoria border.
Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said 24 structures had been destroyed at Buchan, 19 at Sarsfield, 10 at Mallacoota and up to 15 at Cudgewa. Power has been cut to more than 7000 properties at East Gippsland and more than 1800 in the northeast.
AusNet says it could take days to restore power because the fires are still burning and it is unsafe to attend and assess the extent of damage. Phones remain cut across much of the region.
After a request from Premier Daniel Andrews on Tuesday, military personnel will start arriving to help with the relief effort.