‘Catastrophic’ rating as firestorms predicted
Sydney is on the highest fire alert ever issued for the city with warnings of loss of life, massive property losses and unstoppable firestorms predicted for Tuesday as the entire state braces for the worst.
Authorities are pleading with residents to head to town centres and other safe places on Monday and not wait until the last moment on Tuesday, when the potentially-devastating conditions hit.
A catastrophic fire danger warning has been forecast for the Greater Sydney and Greater Hunter areas - which is the first time the category has been declared since it was introduced in 2009.
"Catastrophic is the highest level of bush fire danger,'' the Rural Fire Service said yesterday.
"Homes are not designed to withstand a fire under these conditions. If a fire starts and takes hold during catastrophic fire danger conditions, lives and homes will be at risk.''
The NSW government will also on Monday meet with Rural Fire Service bosses to ascertain whether they need more help from the Australian Defence Force for the battle ahead.
"If you have any apprehension about your safety leave (Monday) and not (Tuesday),'' Emergency Services Minister David Elliott said.
The lethal combination of high temperatures, strong winds and low humidity have experts declaring Tuesday's conditions will be among the most dangerous on record.
"We're talking about schools being destroyed, we're talking about community halls, bridges, power poles," RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
"All of those sorts of things, they get consumed in the path of a volatile fast-moving fire.
"We are particularly concerned about weather forecast right across NSW for Tuesday. The indications are the conditions will be worse than what we experienced in northern NSW (at the weekend).
"Not only will they be worse, they will be concentrated a lot further in NSW."
Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who visited parts of fire affected regions yesterday, also said he had grave concerns for the residents of NSW ahead of the predicted conditions.
"We're not out of this yet,'' Mr Morrison said.
"There is still a long way to go. Tuesday is looking a lot more difficult."
The lethal combination of 35C heat, 10 per cent humidity and gusting winds - as well as the state's prolonged drought - could trigger "tinderbox-like" conditions across nearly all of NSW, including the far north coast, the New England region, the Hunter Valley and the Illawarra.
All those areas, and many others, are expected to be affected. Three people have died and more than 160 homes have already been lost but fire authorities fear the predicted conditions could see carnage on a much later scale.
NSW Police Strikeforce Tronto has been monitoring known arsonists and two Arson Squad detectives are now in Glenn Innes, where two lives were lost, to help prepare a report for the coroner and also investigate if the blaze was deliberately lit.
There are now 1300 volunteers battling more than 70 fires - many of which are still not contained.
A total of 50 trucks are expected to make their way into NSW from interstate tonight in anticipation of dire conditions on Tuesday.
More than a dozen schools have already declared they will be closed on Tuesday, with students urged to stay home if it is safe or move to an urban area as per the instructions of the RFS.
The ADF is providing transport support to the RFS but could also be called upon to help with medical staff, engineering and aerial support, it has indicated.
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FREAK CLOUD THUNDERS FIRE FROM THE SKY
As NSW braces for catastrophic fire conditions in Sydney and the Hunter on Tuesday experts have described the rare and deadly fire behaviour seen in Friday's blazes.
The fires over northern NSW were so fierce they created their own weather pattern and clouds capable of producing lightning which may have ignited new fires.
Pyrocumulonimbus clouds caused by plumes of rapidly rising hot air and smoke hitting the colder air as it rises formed over parts of the state.
"How many and how severe these clouds were hasn't been determined yet, but there were certainly reports of it occurring,'' NSW Rural Fire Service spokesman Greg Allan said. "There will be a review and what part they played in the fires will be part of that."
Similar clouds were observed during the Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009 and the Canberra fires in 2003.
Bushfire expert and former chief fire control officer of the ACT Roger Fenwick said for such clouds to form is an indication of how powerful and extreme the heat generated was.
"To have pyrocumulonimbus clouds exist simply put is one hell of a fire," he said.
"In extreme cases they create conditions which make firefighting incredibly difficult. The updraft from the hot air rises in the atmosphere and then cools down which causes cloud formation.''
They produce gusty, erratic winds and can push the fire in any direction.
Mr Fenwick said humidity and the amount of fuel available is a major factor for fires like the ones being experienced.
"When fuel is heated it loses its moisture content and drives off flammable gases which burn as flames in a process known as pyrolysis," he said. Low humidity takes moisture flues such as trees and leaves speeding up the pyrolysis.
In Friday's blazes spot fires were reported to have started 12km away from drifting embers. The world record for an ember spotted fire is 70km.
Mr Fenwick said the speed at which a fire travels is determined by wind, the slope be cause fire burns faster uphill and relative humidity.