NSW fires: State of emergency declared as PM urges calm amid mass exodus

The New South Wales government has declared a seven-day state of emergency ahead of dangerous bushfire conditions forecast for Saturday.

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian says the state of emergency will allow officials to conduct forced evacuations, road closures and "anything else that we need to do as a state to keep residents safe and to keep properties safe".

NSW RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said 113 fires are burning across the state and that large parts of the state are expected to be affected by the dangerous fire conditions on Saturday.

Burnt-out bush land surrounds the Princes Highway in Ulladulla on 2 January 2020.
Source: AAP

"We are focusing very much on south-eastern quadrant of New South Wales but not at the exclusion of all these other fires we have across the state."

He said efforts to contain the fires are continuing to prevent multiple fires from converging.

"[On Saturday, it will be a] pretty volatile stretch along the coastal stretch like we saw on New Year’s Eve with the wind strengths, gusting particularly 70, 80km/h or more in some parts.

"It is going to be a very dangerous day. It’s going to be a very difficult day."

PM urges calm amid 'chaos'

Parts of the NSW South Coast are in "chaos" as a mass exodus of holiday-makers begins before a return of extreme fire danger on Saturday.

Tourists who have been ordered to leave fire-hit communities on the NSW South Coast are facing shortages of food, water and fuel shortages.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison urged Australians to remain calm. 

"My simple request is to be patient, to have confidence in the state agencies," Mr Morrison told media in Sydney on Thursday.

"I understand the anxiety and I understand the fear that is there for many and I understand the frustration, but this is a natural disaster."

Power down, hours-long queue as people await 'next round of catastrophic conditions' 

Although the fire danger has been downgraded since bushfires swept through the region earlier this week, a number of towns are now experiencing food, water and fuel shortages.

There are reports of people queuing up at supermarkets and petrol stations for upwards of five hours.

Many are taking to social media to share photos of lines snaking around businesses.

As tourists heed authorities' warning to leave the area, traffic is gridlocked across the region.

And with telecommunications still down in some locations, even a phone box had a line.

Late Wednesday, the RFS warned tourists to leave before Saturday and said those planning to travel to cancel their trips.

A "tourist leave zone" has been established from Batemans Bay to the Victorian border.

But not all roads could be opened until trees and debris were cleared.

Further property damage expected

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said conditions on Saturday would likely be worse than those on New Year's Eve, which left a trail of destroyed homes, businesses and utility lines.

He confirmed on Thursday the number of houses lost on New Year's Eve had climbed to 382 and could jump much higher as assessments of the damage continue.

Business owner Sally Anne Wilson in front of her destroyed shop with her partner Christopher Lee in Cobargo, NSW.
Source: AAP

"There's still a lot of the fire grounds that need to be surveyed and validated from the ground," Mr Fitzsimmons told the Nine Network.

"Of course there are a lot of other buildings, lots of other infrastructure, power infrastructure, telecommunications, all sorts of things have been affected."

He said extreme fire danger was likely on Saturday over regions in southern NSW, overlapping with pre-existing destructive bushfires.

Setting containment lines would be the RFS' priority until that time.

"We're expecting to see temperatures up into the high 40s, a westerly-northwesterly wind pattern will dominate which means it'll bring very hot, very dry air across the region," Mr Fitzsimmons said.

NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance, who lives in Malua Bay south of Batemans Bay, saved his home but several neighbours' homes were razed.

He broke down on ABC TV on Thursday morning outlining the devastation, and implored South Coast tourists to get out.

"The RFS have been deadset about this, it is dangerous. We have a lot of active fires, big fires, unprecedented fires," Mr Constance said.

"It's unfair ... I met four RFS guys yesterday who lost their homes. Beautiful neighbours of mine who lost their homes ... we will get through together."

Death toll expected to rise

On Wednesday, police found three bodies in the fire-gutted communities of Sussex Inlet and Yatte Yattah. Seven people have died since Monday, including a person found outside a home near Cobargo.

Coolagolite farmer Steve Shipton survived the same fire front but thought he "was gone" as, with burning eyes, he tried to save his family and home.

"It's just unbelievable. The ferocity and how quick ... that's what shocked me and that's why I thought we were in a good situation to survive," the soot-covered farmer told AAP on Wednesday.

A fire generated thunderstorm has formed over the Currowan fire.
Source: NSW Rural Fire Service

A Belowra man, 72, remains missing, but an 81-year-old woman who was missing in Conjola Park has been located safe and well.

Tens of thousands of homes across the South Coast are also without power after transmission lines were on Tuesday damaged.

The Australian Defence Force on Wednesday continued to provide refuelling, retardant loading and support services for RFS aircraft.

Very high fire danger is forecast on Thursday for eight fire districts on or west of the Great Dividing Range while high fire risk is due for some coastal regions.

Since the start of July, at least 15 people have died and more than 1200 homes have been destroyed by bushfires in NSW. More than 3.6 million hectares - three times the size of Sydney's metro area - have been burnt.


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Published 2 January 2020 at 5:41am, updated 2 January 2020 at 10:01pm

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