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 Bushbys 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’d 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.
Crews continue to battle the massive fire as they work to contain it over the coming days.
“We are still using that figure of up to 30 homes across these fires,” 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.”
A number of residents were treated for minor burns and breathing difficulties, Mr Rogers said on Wednesday morning.
Buildings, including the town hall, were destroyed in what one witness described as “cyclonic” conditions.
“I’ve lost the bloody sheds, the house, lost everything,” Rappville resident Danny Smith told reporters on the scene.
“We might have saved the second place but everything else has gone.”
Donations have been pouring in for 83 year old John Duncan, who lost his home in the blaze.
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.
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.
People are being warned to be extremely cautious as there are fallen power lines, fallen trees and emergency services operations in the area.