A SECOND day of horror conditions kept firefighters guessing at Salt Ash on Friday, with properties constantly under threat from a capricious bushfire amid howling winds.
Firefighters including former Prime Minister Tony Abbott covered an area from Rookes Road to the Williamtown RAAF base on Friday as fast-moving fires and pockets of flame demanded a high degree of caution.
Thin smoke would quickly become impenetrable before clearing altogether within minutes as strong winds forced even some water-bombing aircraft to the ground for safety reasons amid “severe turbulence”.
NSW Rural Fire Service Inspector Rolf Poole said fire investigators would continue to seek out the cause of the blaze, which spent the best part of two days at an Emergency warning level and pushed firefighters from the moment it flared.
Crews were forced to seek out “small pockets of fire” that lurked amid inaccessible bush, often erupting to put homes under direct threat.
“The size of the fire is not the issue, it’s the fact that each of these pockets is driven by the winds and they can go running for houses,” Inspector Poole said.
“It has been challenging all day … normally a fire like this would make hard fast runs.”
Relief from the powerful winds that prevailed on Thursday and Friday is predicted to arrive on Saturday.
Inspector Poole said a change in the weather would be needed before crews could genuinely attack the fire rather than simply defend homes.
“I guess the analogy is that you wouldn’t expect a surf lifesaver to go down during a tsunami and stop it at the beach. In the same way, we can’t stop the tsunami of fire,” Inspector Poole said.
“[Friday was] very much about steering the fire around the assets and then [we will be] attacking it when those conditions improve.”
Rookes Road resident Brendan Thomas’ fence line divided the green of his lawn and trees from the blackened trunks of neighbouring bushland devoured in the early hours of Friday.
Mr Thomas, who spent part of the day spraying water over the smouldering black land next door to his home, said maintenance of fire trails in the area was essential
“It’s not maintained enough,” he said.
“They had a dozer come out in August and that really made an impact this morning.”
Mr Thomas said he woke about 5.30am as the fire moved east, and a short time later Tilligerry firefighters stood in his yard and kept the flames at bay.
“I gave them some gear like gloves,” he said. “They needed it and it was surplus to my needs.”
The stresses of moving house only got worse for Rachel Bailey when the truck hauling her family’s belongings from Tanilba Bay to Maitland got caught in Salt Ash amid the fires, which fell to Watch and Act level about 4pm as conditions eased.
A quick stop to collect items from Ms Bailey’s mother, Robyn Langley, at Salt Ash instead became a brush with the blazes that lasted until mid-morning.
Adding to the pressure, Ms Bailey said she feared a flight out of Williamtown on Saturday morning for a family holiday was also under a literal cloud if smoke kept pouring over the area around Newcastle Airport.
Ms Langley, who has lived in the area 33 years, said Salt Ash residents were familiar with the fear, destruction and suspense bushfires delivered.
“You get aware, but you don’t get blasé because you can’t, she said.
“We’ve had some bad ones, we’ve had loss of life and loss of houses, and we’ve had some that came awfully, awfully close.”
Across the road, Marilyn and Rob Sanderson said the ordeal never changed.
“You never get used to it,” Mr Sanderson said. “It still tightens the sphincter muscles.”
Mr Sanderson said their property was fitted with pumps and generators to withstand a potential loss of electricity.
“When you live here everything works off power because there’s no town water,” he said. “Without electricity, we don’t have water.”
“We’ve spent a lot of money fire-proofing as much as we can ... if you don’t, honestly you’re a mug.”
Despite the risk of fires, with Friday’s threat the second this year so far, the Sandersons said it was simply part of life in Salt Ash.
“It’s a great place to live,” Mr Sanderson said.
Choppers and planes looped over the land near Rookes Road and Lemon Tree Passage Road, with horses in front paddocks as residents hosed down roofs and fire crackled at the back fences of large, rural blocks.
Major roads including Nelson Bay Road, Lemon Tree Passage Road, Richardson Road and Medowie Road re-opened by about 5pm, making planned evacuation centres for displaced residents at Tilligerry and Raymond Terrace unnecessary.
Rookes Road’s Matt Mitchell, whose property sits at the opposite end to Mr Thomas’ and faces black trees scorched as August’s fires closed on his family home, said 12 years in the suburb had steeled him.
Mr Mitchell calmly ran sprinklers on trees in his yard, his children playing nearby.
“That bit there’s a risk, so I’m watering it,” he said.
His land also offered firefighters a thoroughfare through to the Lemon Tree Passage Road properties in the path of the blaze, many sitting back deep from the road nestled in bush.
Asked if the fires worried him, Mr Mitchell was unequivocal.
“Not at all, because we are prepared,” he said. “The premiums worry me.”
Bree Mitchell said she left her husband and family to head to work, getting caught outside the area for the second time since the blaze began on Thursday.
“Today I went into work and pretty much turned around,” she said
Caught in the road closures, it was mid-morning before she returned.
The Mitchells’ neighbour, Dale Wenham said he was comforted by the huge contingent of firefighters.
“They’re bloody good,” he said. “It’s a good road, this, because everyone helps each other.”
Having been in Salt Ash five years and facing his second fire in a few months, Mr Wenham admitted to a bit of nervousness. “They do worry me, I’d be lying if I said they didn’t,” Mr Wenham said.
Looking at his neighbour, he couldn’t resist a bit of humour.
“Move to Salt Ash, they said. It will be fine, they said,” Mr Wenham joked.
Pauline and Mark Gilson used garden hoses and tank water to douse their Lemon Tree Passage Road property as the fire neared around noon.
A fire crew from Weston, an area that had its own fire emergency on Thursday, stayed parked in their front yard for hours.
Many houses had a similar guard, firefighters clumped in adjacent driveways while the Gilsons and their neighbours worked to dampen the fire’s prospects on their land.
Ms Gilson said her son Ben returned from work at Mount Hutton along the beach after reaching Anna Bay on Thursday.
She had sent him updates on the fire as it approached on Friday while the family moved their horses down the road where the air was clear.
“Even the chooks put themselves away,” Ms Gilson said. “They’re not silly.”
Crews slipped between the Gilsons’ property and the Rookes Road one adjoining at the rear.
Helicopters lapped overhead intermittently, filling their buckets in Tilligerry Creek to elicit huge gasps of smoke as they poured it over the blaze hidden in scrub.
As firefighters waited near the family’s pool, hoping to anticipate a dash from the unpredictable fire towards the house, Ms Gilson said the wait for a bushfire to approach to extinguish never got easier.
“You say this is bad, but you forget how scary they all are,” Ms Gilson said. “It doesn’t get easier, but you do get better prepared.”
“I think you learn not to go [as fire approaches]. If you have animals or anyone at home, you’re still beside yourself. At least here you know, and you’re all together.”
Mr Gilson said he was in awe of the firefighters standing vigil near his pool.
“They give up their day jobs to come and do this, to keep us safe,” he said. “You can’t thank them enough.”
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