Seven people are dead, another is missing and at least 176 homes are lost after fires sweeping NSW’s south coast made for a New Year’s Eve many will never forget.
Tourists in the popular holiday region are now being urged to leave where possible as locals and authorities brace for severe and extreme fire danger on Saturday.
On Wednesday police found the bodies of three people in fire-gutted communities.
A man’s body was found in a vehicle at Sussex Inlet while two men were found dead at Yatte Yattah, near Conjola Park, where 89 homes have been lost.
Further south, a body was discovered at a home east of Cobargo, an area already dealing with the deaths of father-and-son Robert and Patrick Salway earlier in the week.
A Belowra man, 72, remains missing.
A Conjola Park woman, 81, missing after her home was destroyed was confirmed safe late on Wednesday.
The Rural Fire Service says at least 176 homes have been lost across the state, including 40 at Malua Bay and 15 at Rosedale.
Damage has also been wrought in the Snowy Mountains and towards Tumbarumba, as well as on the NSW Central Coast
“This is by no means the end of the losses, just simply because crews are still out assessing,” Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers told reporters on Wednesday.
He said emergency services were doing all they could to get to people stuck across the south coast, including the 40,000-odd without power and many without telecommunications.
“Some of these people, they may be hurt, but they also may be very concerned about where they’re at and want to reconnect with people,” he said.
“Today has been about trying to reconnect with people that have been isolated in areas.
“That work isn’t finished yet.”
Sussex Inlet local David Warner spent Tuesday evening at an evacuation centre at Bomaderry Bowling Club after catching a bus to Nowra before the Princes Highway was blocked off.
“When we came in, everything was blue, it was all good and then 11 o’clock (there was) all these fires, smoke, sirens everywhere and I said, we’re not going to get back,” Mr Warner told AAP on Wednesday.
Unlike those who had evacuated, Mr Warner had nothing with him and slept on the floor of the bowling club, which had filled with people, dogs, cats and even a tortoise.
“I will never forget this New Year’s,” he said.
“It’ll be stuck in my head ’till the day I die.”
While roads began reopening in some areas, RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons warned the worst conditions on Saturday would be worse than Tuesday.
“Unfortunately that also correlates with where we have some of the worst, most damaging ad destructive bushfires in NSW at the moment,” he said.
Very high fire danger is forecast on Thursday for eight fire districts on or west of the Great Diving Range while high fire risk is due for some coastal regions.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said communities needed to brace for the worrying weekend and more fatalities possibly coming to light in coming days.
“Many people who have been here for decades are just completely shocked that the fire reached as far as it did,” she told reporters at Batemans Bay.
NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys asked for patience as police and utility providers tried their best to get power and telecom services restored down the south coast.
“We have to make sure that when we restart the power, we do that with safety and confidence, that it will remain on. People need to understand this is not a simple or easy task.”
As of 8pm on Wednesday, 102 fires were burning statewide with seven blazes at watch-and-act level and none at emergency warning.
Since the start of July, at least 15 people have died and 1087 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.