South Coast fires: Seven found amid reports of hundreds of homes lost

Homes and property were lost in the fires that went through Lake Conjola on New Year's Eve. Photo: Karleen Minney
Homes and property were lost in the fires that went through Lake Conjola on New Year's Eve. Photo: Karleen Minney

Seven people and at least 176 homes have been confirmed lost in the New Year's Eve fires that swept through NSW South Coast communities.

"This is by no means the end of the losses, just simply because crews are still out assessing, but I can confirm there's 176 homes confirmed lost at this point," NSW Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said.

"Some areas have been hit quite hard, areas like Conjola Park, 89 homes have been destroyed there, Malua Bay, 40 homes have been destroyed there and there's a number of other locations. Rosedale 15."

A house destroyed at Conjola West. Picture: Sam Strong

A house destroyed at Conjola West. Picture: Sam Strong

Deputy commissioner Rogers also warned that while conditions had improved on Wednesday, they were set to deteriorate further.

"There is every potential that the conditions on Saturday will be as bad or worse than we saw [Tuesday]. The winds are expected to be very strong, back to 40-plus degrees temperatures," he said.

NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys said three deaths had been confirmed on Wednesday, on top of four deaths discovered on Tuesday.

Police said the body of a man had been found in a burnt-out car on a road off the Princes Highway at Yatte Yattah, about six kilometres west of Lake Conjola on Wednesday morning.

Another body had been found in a car at Sussex Inlet and authorities feared the worst for a person missing after a house was destroyed at Lake Conjola.

Commissioner Worboys listed a 72-year-old man missing near Narooma as one of the dead discovered on Tuesday, along with father and son Robert and Patrick Salway who died defending their home in Cobargo. There had also been another body found on Myrtle Gully Road, although it was unclear if this had been related to the fires.

Authorities are urging visitors to Eurobodalla to leave via Narooma as soon as possible, but warn people should only do so if they have enough petrol to get to Cooma.

"We urge visitors to leave Eurobodalla via Narooma as soon as possible. It is in their best interests and the best interests of our community. Only leave now if you have enough fuel to get to Cooma. We will advise as soon as fuel is available in Narooma and Moruya," the Eurobodalla council and rural fire service said in a joint statement.

"From Tomakin, travel south via George Bass Drive to Moruya. From Moruya, the Princes Highway is open to Bermagui. Take Bermagui turn off and travel via coast road to Tathra and on to Bega. These detours are signposted. The Snowy Mountains Highway, Brown Mountain, is open for travel to Canberra and west. Please travel calmly and obey traffic control."

Fire conditions are expected to ease on Wednesday but for residents the threat from the devastating fires remained present as thousands were without power and telecommunication lines remained down.

On Tuesday it was confirmed two people, 62-year-old Robert Salway and his son, 29-year-old Patrick Salway, died on their property at Wandella, about 10 kilometres north-west of Cobargo, overnight on Monday. Volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul died when his fire truck rolled in strong winds at a NSW-Victoria border town.

'Considerable' toll still being measured

NSW RFS commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said, "We also have a very real challenge with a couple of isolated communities where we have reports of injuries and burn injuries to members of the public. We haven't been able to get access via roads or via aircraft.

He said it was too early to tell the extent of the damage from the fires but indicated there had also been considerable damage to community infrastructures with reports that two or three schools had been heavily impacted by the fires.

"We aware of heavy tolls in terms of damage and destruction, particularly up in the South Nowra area, and places to the east of the fire burning in South Nowra," he said.

"But also the very significant activity on the bottom end of the Currowan fire, the Clyde Mountain fire, that burned down into Batemans Bay, a heavy toll had been occasioned as a result of that very fast moving fire front.

"And the Badja fire, further down south across the ranges, that's moved down right through places like Cobargo, where there's been heavy damage occasioned though those communities as well."

A spokesman for federal member for Eden Monaro Mike Kelly said he had been briefed there were unconfirmed reports of up to 200 properties lost across the far South Coast.

In the Batemans Bay area and Mogo, federal member for Gilmore Fiona Phillips told ABC Radio that building loses were in the hundreds.

NSW RFS spokesman Greg Allan said it was too dangerous to get impact assessment teams on the ground in some of the hardest hit areas.

He said there had been reports of properties losses in areas south of Batemans Bay, Malua Bay, Mogo and Lake Conjola.

In Conjola West whole streets have been razed. In Malua Bay, photos show the bowling club has been wiped out.

As of 2pm on Wednesday this was the situation for fires burning on the South Coast:

  • Badja Forest Road fire: Watch and act level. Conditions have eased but the fireground remains dangerous. RFS has advised those in Bermagui, Regatta Point, Wallaga Lake and Wallaga Lake Heights to monitor conditions and to remain in place as roads are blocked. The fire front has passed through the areas of: Cobargo, Coolagolite, Quaama, Mcleods Hill, Nerrigundah, Tinpot, Cadgee, Eurobodalla, Turlinjah, Comerang, Bodalla, Wandella, Upper Brogo, Yowrie, and Verona but there still may be active fires in these areas.
  • Clyde Mountain fire: Watch and act level. Conditions are easing on the fireground. Fires have passed through the areas of: north of the Moruya River, Mogendoura, Buckenbowra, Runnyford, Nelligen Coastal areas east of the Princes Highway from Batemans Bay to Broulee North Batemans Bay, Surfside, Long Beach, South Durras, Maloneys Beach, Mogo and Bimbimbie but there still may be active fires in these areas.
  • Currowan fire: Watch and act level. A strong southerly change has crossed the fireground. Fire has passed through: Areas North of Ulladulla, south of Nowra, The Bay and Basin area, areas south of Nowra, west of the Princes Highway, Burrier, Bamarang, Nowra Hill, Yerriyong, Yatte Yattah, Lake Conjola, Cunjurong, Manyana and Fishermans Paradise but there still may be active fires in these areas.

Public information line

NSW Police has announced a Public Information and Inquiry Centre has been opened to assist people in relation to bushfire information for the South Coast areas.

The telephone number to call is 1800 227 228.

NSW Police Deputy Commissioner Gary Worboys urged people to use it only when they needed to.

"It is an opportunity for people who have concerns about the fire and about the information that they're not sure in terms of where they should go or what they should do," he said

"This is not about people trying to shore up arrangements when there is already information out there to assist them. There will be no information shared with the public in terms of road, in terms of power, in terms of communications."

Communications being restored

New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said restoring infrastructure, particularly telecommunications, would be a priority on Wednesday.

"We know that telecommunications is difficult at this stage, that there's been damage to towers but also the sheer congestion of people contacting people in those areas has resulted in telecommunications being very difficult. We ask people not to worry if they can't contact their loved ones or friends."

Ms Berejiklian also urged people to heed advice regarding road closures.

"Today will also be a day of being able to clean up and clear local roads where possible. A lot of the terrain where the fires struck yesterday down the South Coast were communities which were isolated, meaning there is only one road in and out, so there will be every effort made today to make some of the roads safe."

On Wednesday morning the Clyde Mountain fire had burnt more than 64,000 hectares, more than double the area burnt 24 hours earlier. The three fires burning between Nowra and Moruya covered close to 340,000 hectares.

Late on Tuesday three fires burning north of Bega formed to create one, with the Badja Forest Road fire at more than 165,000 hectares.

The fires remained at emergency level for most of the night before being downgraded to watch and act level early Wednesday morning.

A viral video posted on Twitter by Fire and Rescue NSW highlighted the intense conditions faced by crews on Monday. A crew from Station 509 Wyoming recorded footage showing their truck overrun by fire south of Nowra. The crew sheltered in their truck and Fire and Rescue NSW confirmed the firefighers were OK.

Conditions to ease - before deteriorating again

Fire conditions are expected to ease on Wednesday after a cool change, bringing gusts of up to 80km/h and dry lightning strikes, crossed NSW.

But conditions will deteriorate on the weekend and Ms Berejiklian warned conditions could be "at least as bad as what they were yesterday".

The fire danger for Wednesday in Illawarra/Shoalhaven and the Far South Coast is high, and very high in the Southern Ranges, where a total fire ban is in effect.

With the ease in conditions on Wednesday crews are going to be focusing on back burning operations and road clearing.

Bega Valley Shire mayor Kristy McBain told evacuees at the Bega Showground on Wednesday that fires in the district had eased but there were no contained edges on any of the four showgrounds.

"Yesterday was one of the most challenging in our shire history with great impact also felt by our neighbours in the north, south and west of this shire," she said.

Ms McBain said efforts would be made to open roads to help people in Eurobodalla evacuate south into the Bega Valley Shire as well as to Canberra.

Major roads, including several parts of the Princes Highway linking South Coast communities, are likely to remain closed for some time due to hazards.

  • with AAP