Firefighters face a fire front in New South Wales, 17 October 2013. Photo: Mika White

By Rick Feneley and Judith Whelan
21 October 2013

(Sydney Morning Herald) – Hundreds of thousands of people face a growing bushfire calamity, with the entire Blue Mountains area as well as Penrith and Richmond in danger of burning over the next few days.

Premier Barry O'Farrell on Sunday took the extraordinary step of declaring a state of emergency across NSW for the next 30 days, which will give special powers to all emergency services to deal with what could be a catastrophe.

Mass forced evacuations affecting tens of thousands of people are possible as hotter and drier than expected conditions combine with huge fire fronts already burning.

''This is not out of the realms of possibility,'' NSW Rural Fire Services Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said. ''We are expecting the potential for the series of these fires to come together, to extend right down Bells Line of Road.

''They have the very real potential to go right out to the eastern end of the Hawkesbury, right down into the north-west area of Sydney including Richmond.

''That's what we are talking about, the run from Bilpin right through to Richmond.

''We are also talking about the fires coming down the northern areas of the Great Western Highway, everywhere from Blackheath to Katoomba, Leura and all the townships all the way along to places like Springwood and Winmalee.

''That's the magnitude. I sincerely hope it's not realised and we end up somewhere in between, but what we can't ignore is the probability, based on the weather forecast and based on the current fire behaviour that we've experienced and which we are continuing to experience across these fire grounds.'' […]

Map showing possible development of a superfire in New South Wales, as three bushfires in the Blue Mountains may merge, 21 October 2013. Graphic: Sydney Morning Herald

On Monday morning there were 56 fires burning around the state, of which 12 were not contained. Just one emergency warning was in place, and three ''watch and act'' warnings for fires at Springwood and Mount Victoria in the Blue Mountains and Balmoral in the southern highlands.

The weather is expected to be at its worst on Wednesday, with the forecast for high temperatures, low humidity and high winds being assessed as much worse than predicted last week. […]

''We are not in a catastrophic [weather] ratings scale [but] we are talking about fire danger ratings that will be in the severe category - and you overlay that with the fires that are already burning and it's a whole new ball game,'' Mr Fitzsimmons said.

The worst fire disaster in NSW for at least 45 years could lead to evacuations from high-population centres such as Katoomba and Leura. […]

Assistant Police Commissioner Alan Clarke said: "Let me say this: police will be doing forced evacuations if necessary."

Two Australian men, enveloped in smoke and ash, try to protect their home from bushfires in New South Wales, 17 October 2013. Photo: Connor Kik / Instagram

Mr O'Farrell conceded this would undoubtedly cause distress to some people but said: ''At times like this, it's better to be safe than sorry."

Mr Fitzsimmons added: "I'm sure it will be [controversial]. There isn't much in the fire-management business that isn't controversial … But I'd rather be copping criticism in two or three days' time for what didn't occur." […]

Mr Fitzsimmons said it was always dangerous to draw parallels but "you'd be going back to time periods in the late '60s, where the '68 fires would be close" to the present situation.

"The reality, however, is these conditions that we're looking at are a whole new ball game and in a league of their own," he said. He warned the entire Blue Mountains community needed to be on alert for possible evacuations, from Mount Victoria and Blackheath to Katoomba and Leura, "right down to the fire burning in Springwood" and beyond to Kurrajong and Richmond.

"We are not talking necessarily at this stage of mass evacuations of the entire Blue Mountains community," he said. "But what we can't rule out is that there will be parts that may well so be evacuated. We have very changing, dynamic, volatile situations that will unfold over the next three to four days." [more]

State of emergency declared as bushfire conditions worsen

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