Authorities believe a fire that has destroyed up to 30 homes in northern NSW may have been deliberately lit in what the emergency services minister says would be a truly “bastard act”.
Some residents suffered burns when a huge out-of-control bushfire ripped through the rural hamlet of Rappville on Tuesday afternoon.
The Rural Fire Service believes the blaze started on Friday night in the Busbys Flat area.
“Our investigations have come back that there was something suspicious that has happened in that area,” a spokesman told reporters on Wednesday.
“Potentially (it was) deliberately lit.”
NSW Emergency Services Minister David Elliott said anyone who would put lives at risk would face the full force of the law.
“It really is a bastard act if you are going to put your own community at risk,” he told reporters in Sydney.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said she was “horrified” to hear the fire was suspicious.
“I’m simply horrified and shocked that anyone would think it’s smart to be lighting any of these fires – I hope that’s not the case,” she said at the Sydney headquarters of the RFS.
Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers says the blaze wreaked havoc on Tuesday afternoon ahead of what’s likely to be a “very long summer” of bushfires.
Mr Rogers said on Wednesday that two fires – at Drake near Tenterfield and at Busbys Flat near Rappville – had joined together to form one large blaze which has already burned more than 100,000 hectares.
Assessors are yet to access the worst-hit areas with authorities hoping to confirm losses later on Wednesday.
“We are still using that figure of up to 30 homes across these fires (at this stage),” Mr Rogers told ABC TV.
“Before these fires, we had already lost around 44 homes in NSW due to fires so far this fire season, and obviously that number could climb significantly from these fires.”
Buildings, including the town hall, were destroyed in what one witness described as “cyclonic” conditions.
It’s feared there will be “mass losses” of sheds, fences, agricultural equipment and vehicles.
“I’ve lost the bloody sheds, the house, lost everything,” Rappville resident Danny Smith told reporters.
“We might have saved the second place but everything else has gone.”
A number of residents were treated for minor burns and breathing difficulties, Mr Rogers said.
Some locals are unaccounted for but authorities are working to get in touch with all residents who were forced to flee their properties.
Donations have been pouring in for 83-year-old John Duncan who lost his home.
His daughter, Carol, has set up a GoFundMe page to help her father who she says “lost everything except the clothes he was wearing”.
Ms Duncan said her father had moved to the area from Canberra after the devastating 2004 bushfires “not wanting to go through it again”.
Cameraman Matt Coble said he watched in horror as the Busbys Flat fire came towards him over a hill.
He told ABC TV the wind was “cyclonic”.
“The roar of it, the speed of it, was unbelievable – I couldn’t imagine the speed of the actual wind.”
Coble described the situation as “quite scary” and said birds dropped out of the sky in front of him.
The RFS says residents likely won’t be able to return home for a number of days given trees are down across roads and power lines are on the ground.
More than 30 fires are still burning across NSW but the RFS hopes more favourable weather conditions will help them get the upper hand ahead of forecast weekend rain.
Crews from interstate are expected to provide reinforcements over the coming days.