THE bushfire season started in terrifying style in Sydney’s north-west on Tuesday, with two homes lost and several firefighters injured.
About 1000 firefighters with 350 trucks and 14 aircraft were fighting 63 bush and grass fires across the state.
In the Hunter, fires near Dungog, Cessnock, Wollombi and Wyee were under control last night.
But the blazes prompted a warning from authorities about the bushfire threat confronting the Hunter this summer, with much of the region tinder-dry following record warm temperatures during winter.
WINTER finished only 10 days ago, but Hunter fire crews are already fighting a string of blazes across the region that typically occur at the height of summer.
It has prompted fire authorities to warn of the potential for a nightmare fire season ahead.
The outbreak of fires near Dungog, Cessnock, Wollombi and Wyee yesterday was an ominous reminder that much of the Hunter is tinder-dry following record warm temperatures during winter.
Hunter fire crews issued a watch and act alert mid-afternoon yesterday as the fires started to move towards neighbouring properties.
‘‘It’s certainly a very serious start to the [fire] season,’’ Lower Hunter Rural Fire Service fire control officer Jayson McKellar said last night.
A fire caused havoc on the M1 Pacific Motorway near Wyee with Rural Fire Service crews forced to close one of two northbound lanes to get the blaze under control.
They carried out backburn operations in an attempt to halt the fire in nearby bushland.
Traffic queues reached more than three kilometres as smoke affected visibility and motorists travelling from Gosford to Newcastle were hit with delays of almost an hour.
All lanes were reopened about 8.30pm.
Mr McKellar said significant hazard reduction undertaken in recent months by the Rural Fire Service and the National Parks and Wildlife Service had put crews in the best possible position as they head into a summer that has begun forebodingly.
‘‘We have achieved a good combination of areas that have been burnt and also cleared with mechanical hazard reduction,’’ he said.
He urged landholders to consult the Rural Fire Service website to check if it was safe to attempt hazard reduction burning.
‘‘This is our first decent run of weather that is conducive to fire,’’ he said.
‘‘We appreciate that landholders need to be out there to do some burning, but we’d like them to use a bit of common sense. Days like today are not the days to be doing burning.’’
The National Parks and Wildlife Service has burned about 5500hectares, or 70per cent of its annual target since July 1 this year.
Terrifying signals for days ahead
By LISA DAVIES, NICK RALSTON and PETER HANNAM
FIREFIGHTERS were engaged in a running battle to save lives and homes in Sydney’s north-western fringe yesterday as the summer bushfire season kicked off with terrifying scenes.
With temperatures over 30 degrees, fires broke out and moved quickly, with north-westerly winds meaning otherwise containable grass fires quickly turned into dangerous, fast-moving infernos.
By 6pm, the Rural Fire Service said there were 63 fires burning across NSW – 31 of them were uncontained, with four major fires at the highest emergency warning level, meaning property and lives were under direct threat.
Suburbs including Castleraegh near Penrith, Winmalee, Hawkesbury, Marsden Park and Windsor were under siege, with two homes lost – one at Hawkesbury Road at Winmalee, in the Blue Mountains, and another in Marsden Park, in the Blacktown area.
Two firefighters had to be treated for burns while five others required treatment for serious smoke inhalation.
The fires kicked off on the back of the warmest overnight and day temperatures ever recorded in Sydney so early in spring.
Fairfax Media photographer Nick Moir captured frightening images on the fire ground, even witnessing fire fighters having to abandon their truck as flames rushed up to engulf the vehicle.
He described the fires as ‘‘very erratic’’, with fast moving grass fires and dry weather over the last month causing serious problems for authorities.
‘‘The winds are changing direction erratically,’’ he said.
‘‘The RFS, they’re finding it very hard to put units in front of fires because it’s erratic bushland here. They’ll jump on one outbreak and the next second the plot down the road is on fire.’’
Meanwhile in the CBD, NSW Premier Barry O’Farrell asked the public to remain patient in areas where fire was affecting traffic and electricity supply.
‘‘It’s clear that there is serious fire risk in the western parts of our city," he told the Parliament. "I would hope that the public, motorists and households affected by power outages are patient.’’
He said 999 firefighters had been involved in the effort yesterday.
The NSW Rural Fire Service said the cause of the big four fires in Sydney’s west would be investigated and what caused each blaze was still unknown.
As night began to fall, residents in Windsor in Sydney’s north-west continued to help fight a bushfire just metres from their homes.
Smoke billowed over Windsor Downs Nature Reserve as water-bombing helicopters and crews battled grass fires fanned by winds up to 70km/h yesterday.
Sanctuary Drive residents Michael and Sandra Bellamy left work to return home and protect their house when they realised there was a fire in the reserve bordering their property.
‘‘I got a text message from my daughter saying that I should probably go home,’’ Ms Bellamy said.
However, police road closures prevented her from reaching the family home, where they have lived for 19 years.