“We can certainly see some of the aerial footage and the vision coming through which is identifying some widespread property damage and destruction right across multiple firegrounds,” Mr Fitzsimmons told the ABC.
Residents in Bellbrook, Willi Willi, Bora Ridge, Lower Creek or Comara were told it was too late to leave as road access was blocked due to various different fires, while those in Coutts Crossing, Old Bar, Tinonee, Purfleet, Wallabi Point, Laurieton and Dunbogan were encouraged to evacuate.
Fire and Rescue NSW said some houses had been “under threat” earlier in the day at the Woodford fire but with the help of helicopters, they had slowly begun to turn the tide on that battle.
“The temperature has dropped and the humidity has increased, which is good for us,” Fire and Rescue NSW acting superintendent Nick Andronicos said.
The Pacific Highway is closed in both directions between Taree and Bulahdelah, and at Port Macquarie between the Oxley Highway and Hastings River Drive.
Windy conditions worsened bushfire conditions across a drought-stricken NSW, where emergency warning were activated for fires burning at Tenterfield in the state’s north, Hillville near Forster and Bills Crossing Crowdy in Coralville, south of Port Macquarie.
MidCoast Council mayor David West said he has “never felt a sense of anguish that I do now, the fear for my community,” describing the conditions as “unprecedented.”
Fire crews are in the midst of a horrific 48 hours with hot and windy conditions causing havoc as new fires start and existing fires jump containment lines. There is also concern fires will combine in the state’s north.
“It’s going to be very hot and very dry and very windy,” RFS spokesman Greg Allan said. “We are likely to see conditions subside a little over the weekend, but things to pick up again early next week.”
As a “skyscraper of flames” came towards Maria Doherty and her Port Macquarie property on Friday, the scene looked “like armageddon.”
It was 4pm when Mrs Doherty, her five children, two goats and a dog piled into the family car to flee their three-acre property, leaving behind a backyard ablaze and her husband battling spot fires lit by sparks falling every which way.
“Within 30 minutes this great wall of fire just came from the back of our cul de sac and within seconds the trees were catching fire, and the sky was orange and yellow. It was like Armageddon,” she said.
At her family’s property in Thrumster, just 8 kilometres out of Port Macquarie, Mrs Doherty said the pace of the fire was like nothing she had ever experienced.
“But then like heroes through the smoke, the blue and red lights of the RFS truck came tearing through … Amazingly they have saved all ten houses on the cul de sac … and even brought my washing in,” she said.
“I got a call around 7.30pm on Thursday from one of the firies. He said, you must have left in a bit of a hurry, but don’t worry, I’ve brought in all your washing for you. They did an absolutely awesome job.”
Port Macquarie resident Ruth Allen was looking out over the ocean on Lighthouse Beach on Friday afternoon. She could barely see the structure the beach is named after, which was shrouded in what she said was a “hideous red colour”.
Ms Allen has lived in the area for 12 years. She said nothing had previously threatened homes to this extent.
“We had a couple of bushfires up on the north shore, and there have, of course, been fires out further, but this is the first time since we’ve lived here where we’ve seen anything like this. It’s incredibly unusual. This is driest I’ve seen it,” she said.
As she spoke to the Herald, she noted the ash getting thicker outside. Even though she does not suffer from asthma, she said she had been coughing and wheezing.
“But we’re the lucky ones. I’ve been speaking to people whose homes are on the front line and they’re scared. But to be honest, we’re all getting scared now.”
In the early hours of Saturday morning there were 82 fires burning across the state, with 45 yet to be contained. Twelve of those fires were at emergency warning. Fires upgraded to “emergency warning” level included those in Rumba Dump in the Tapin Tops National Park, and Jacobs Spur in Kempsey.
“We’re miles away from the fires at Lake Cathie and Crowdy Head, but the smoke is still incredibly thick here, and you can feel ash dropping from the sky,” Port Macquarie resident Laura Begbie said.
“It’s incredibly eerie here, and it’s almost pitch black. It’s the middle of the day, but I still have every light on in the house. The smoke has left me feeling quite ill and exhausted, but I’m mostly concerned about my friends who live closer to the fires.”
Friday’s hot and gusty westerly winds led to thick smoke and “plume development” meaning the fires “developed their own kind of weather system,” said Helen Kirkup, meteorologist with the Bureau of Meteorology.
She said a southerly change on Friday was expected to cool temperatures in the north-east, which should ease fire conditions throughout Saturday.
“Places around the mid-north coast are looking at temperatures of mid to low-20s, whereas on Friday it was mid to low-30s. It’s going to make quite a difference,” Ms Kirkup said.
“Sunday it will start warming up a bit. But the next day we are quite concerned about is Tuesday, which is likely to have very high temperatures.”
On Friday evening Commissioner Fitzsimmons thanked fire crews for “getting the job done,” but said it was time to prepare for the months ahead.
“There is nothing to suggest anything but a dominance of above average temperatures and below average rainfall … There is so much fire out there in the landscape there is going to be so much work required by crews.”
Four of the state’s 21 fire areas will have total fire bans tomorrow even as the state cools off behind a cold front.
Matt Bungard is a journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.
Lucy Cormack is a crime reporter with The Sydney Morning Herald.
Sarah is a journalist for The Sydney Morning Herald.