(Sydney Morning Herald with AAP): Emergency warnings have been issued for Blue Mountains residents as bushfires intensify in the area.
Crews have been redirected from back burning operations to protect more than 100 homes in Bell, Dargan, Berambing and Bilpin that are now under threat, Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.
Residents east of Mountain Lagoon Road are advised to evacuate if possible but residents of Dargan and Bell are being advised to “seek shelter within the home” as it was too late to leave.
“There’s about 20 properties in the community of Bell which are under threat at the moment,” Rural Fire Service Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said.
Residents in these areas have been told to seek shelter and avoid driving amid warnings of numerous road closures. Bells Line of Road remains closed in a number of locations and is blocked in both directions between Lithgow and Bilpin. The Great Western Highway near Mt York remains open but the NSW RFS warns it may close at any moment.
”This fire is by no means contained,” said Mr Rogers. ”It’s got absolutely kilometres and kilometres of fire front.”
He stressed it was too late for people in Berambing and Bilpin to leave, as the roads were too dangerous to use.
”The message is to shelter in place and not to leave,” Mr Rogers said.
Springwood Hospital, meanwhile, has been evacuated this afternoon with 24 patients and 17 staff now en route to Nepean Private Hospital.
Clair Ramsden, Nepean Blue Mountains Local Health District Incident Controller, confirmed ambulance staff were facilitating the transfer and that next of kin had been contacted to advise them that their loved ones were ‘‘moving out of the area’’. She added maintenance staff were at the Springwood site to ‘‘lock down and monitor’’ the hospital, amid worsening conditions in the coming days.
A second air crane has been despatched to the firefighters at Springwood near St Columba’s High School.
Explosives exercise may have started fires
As the Blue Mountains bushfire was upgraded to emergency status, the Department of Defence was forced to concede on Saturday that it might have been responsible for starting the blaze. Defence has confirmed it is exploring the circumstances of the State Mine Fire near Lithgow, which has destroyed more than 30,000 hectares.
The fire started on October 16, the same day Defence personnel held an explosive ordnance training activity at the Marangaroo Training Area. Defence said on Saturday it was investigating whether the two events were “linked”.
“The primary concern at this stage is for the safety of the communities in the vicinity of the fire, then the ongoing investigation which will review both the incident and Defence procedures,” the statement said. “Our thoughts are with those who have lost property or whose property is threatened by these devastating fires.”
Defence said it will work with the NSW Rural Fire Service to investigate both the incident and its own procedures, once the fire is extinguished. Detective Superintendent Ian McNab, Commander of Strike Force Tronto, which investigates arson related incidents, said the fire was not being treated as suspicious.
Warmer weather and winds predicted
Firefighters had earlier hoped for respite from the bushfires that have flamed across NSW. Cooler, calmer conditions on Saturday morning delivered what the RFS called a “pause” in the fight against the 83 fires burning across NSW, including 19 uncontained blazes.
RFS deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said it will likely warm up on Sunday and winds could strengthen on Monday. Earlier hopes of rain appeared unlikely on Saturday afternoon. “In the absence of rain, these fires will just keep burning and they’re just going to run hard,” Mr Rogers said.
Bushfires have devastated communities in the Blue Mountains. The RFS said on Saturday that 193 homes had been destroyed and another 109 damaged in the Springwood and Winmalee areas. That number could change following more investigations.
Mr Rogers said it was particularly difficult for firefighters working in their home area. “There’s a sense of failure when they lose homes because their mantra is to try and protect people and their homes,” he said.
A 10,000 hectare fire in Balmoral, in the Southern Highlands, remained active after crossing multiple roads, he said. There had been “a lot of damage caused” in Wyong, on the central coast, where a 63-year-old man suffered a heart attack and died defending his home.
Separately, two girls aged 12 and 13 have been accused of trying to start a fire in a western Sydney reserve on Friday. They were arrested, questioned and released. NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell, speaking to reporters at Wyong RFS headquarters, described the alleged arson as “sheer stupidity”.
It has also been revealed that among those to have lost their homes are five serving NSW Police officers including Paul Bousfield, Chairperson of the NSW Police Legacy.
Police Association President, Scott Weber, confirmed all five were back on duty, on Saturday.
‘‘They were out there protecting the community when their homes were burning and they’re still out there now making sure everyone’s safe. They have nowhere to go home to, no clothes or anything. It won’t have sunk in yet.’’
A total fire ban is now in place across the greater Sydney, Hunter, Illawarra/Shoalhaven regions and the central ranges.