Unprecedented bushfire destroys at least 100 homes in New South Wales, as firefighters struggle to tame blaze

The Australian state of New South Wales is in the grip of an unprecedented bushfire crisis, with almost fifty fires still out of control on Friday night despite the efforts of 1,200 firefighters and 70 fire-fighting planes.

Two people have been killed and several are missing, with that number expected to rise over the weekend.

The fires cast an ominous orange glow over large areas of eastern New South Wales, with some locals describing the scene as “apocalyptic”.

At one point during the day there were more than 90 fires burning in the state with 57 out of control and 17 considered “emergency level”. There were also two emergency level fires burning in southern Queensland. 

Both states have been plagued by severe drought, and while some parts of New South Wales celebrated rain over the weekend, it was not widespread enough to mitigate the damage done by months of historically poor rainfall, making this fire season more dangerous than usual. 

New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons told local media that almost 1,200 firefighters and 70 aircraft had been deployed "to save as many people as possible”, with around 92,000 people affected by the fires.

"We are expecting that number (of missing persons) to climb today," Mr Fitzsimmons told reporters on Saturday. "There are really grave concerns that there could be more losses or indeed more fatalities."

A water bombing plane drops fire retardant on a bushfire in Harrington, New South Wales Credit: SHANE CHALKER/EPA-EFE/REX

At 9pm local time on Friday, the RFS issued a statement saying: “There are 85 fires burning across New South Wales, with 49 yet to be contained. Fifteen fires remain at Emergency Warning, although weather conditions are beginning to ease. Despite this, there are still many hours of difficult firefighting ahead for our crews.”

Earlier, the Service said: “Today has been a difficult and dangerous day. Unfortunately, many people have called for help but due to the size and speed of the fires we couldn't get to everyone, even by road or helicopter.”

The RFS described the situation as “uncharted territory”. 

At least 100 homes were destroyed by the fire and more than 30 people were injured, firefighters confirmed, after the intensity of the blazes made it impossible for emergency crews to reach some victims.

Police door knock a house to warn residents of an out-of-control bushfire in Queensland Credit:  DAN PELED/EPA-EFE/REX

Commissioner Fitzsimmons said parts of the M1 motorway and the New England Highway were closed, and warned other road closures could leave people trapped.

"You've got to understand a lot of the access roads in and around many of these fires are more dangerous than staying in a shelter or a safer place in your local community or your property," he told local media. 

“The principal message is about sheltering and sheltering in place — it's simply too dangerous and too late to leave."

Mr Fitzsimmons also said most of the fires were spreading at twice the normal speed.

The worst of the state's fires stretch from Forster on the state's mid-north coast right up to Coraki, south-west of Ballina.