Fires raging out of control in the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) have merged into what firefighters dubbed a “mega fire”, escalating the destruction of the country’s worst fire season on record.
More than 2.1 million hectares (5.1 million acres) have been scorched, 688 homes destroyed, and six people killed since fires erupted across the state in September.
Greg Allan, spokesman for the NSW Rural Fire Service (RSF), said 87 separate fires were burning throughout the state on Sunday.
Cooler weather and more favourable wind conditions have assisted firefighters in containing many of these blazes throughout the day, but about 50 remain out of control, including the Gospers Mountain “mega fire” near Sydney’s northwest outskirts.
“Crews today have worked to slow the spread of fire under the more favourable conditions of easterly winds and undertake back burning where they can ahead of worsening conditions on Tuesday,” Allan said.
Temperatures are expected to hit the high 30s to low 40s throughout the state on Tuesday with westerly winds returning, which threatens to place large parts of the state under “severe fire danger”.
The worst of Australia’s fire season usually comes in the mid-summer month of January.
“It was a very fast, very early, very destructive season,” Allan told Al Jazeera. “In fact, the amount of hectares already burned is more than the previous three seasons combined, and the season is not over yet.”
RSF is the world’s largest volunteer firefighting service. Allan said about 2,200 volunteer firefighters and support crews are right now working to save homes, lives and forests throughout NSW.
“They’ve already done an amazing effort,” he said. “They’re all very tired, but it goes to show the willingness and the commitment of our volunteers to support not only their local communities but travelling around the state to support residents and communities elsewhere.”
These volunteer units have received assistance from other government departments and interstate fire agencies.
But a continuing drought that has devastated much of Australia has driven the spread of fires.
“Very high temperatures, strong winds, low humidity, coupled with the ongoing drought and the dryness of the land certainly hasn’t helped,” Allan said, adding that water shortages in some areas have also been an obstacle for fire crews.
As fires rage, smoke clouds have been devastating towns throughout the state and its capital, Sydney, and reports of breathing problems have skyrocketed.
The NSW Ministry of Health reported a 25-percent increase in emergency breathing and asthma problems because of smoke inhalation.
The skies over Sydney have been tainted orange by smoke and ash, and golfers competing in the Australian Open Golf championship have complained of stinging eyes. Other sporting events were cancelled across the capital.
Smoke drifts have even reached New Zealand and affected other states as some fires that reached devastating levels last month continue to burn in Queensland and elsewhere.
Allan urged residents to do their part to protect their homes and aid firefighting efforts to stop the fires from spreading.
“Remove combustible materials from around the home, clean out the gutters, make sure that a hose or hoses will reach around the house, and more importantly, discuss a bushfire survival plan,” he said.
Local photographer Josh Burkinshaw captured stunning images of fires raging in North Durras, about 270 kilometres (167 miles) south of Sydney, as he helped friends and neighbours save their properties from the flames.
The 37-year-old described the scene on Friday as he helped one of his best friends protect the family’s waterfront caravan park using fire hoses and a water truck.
“It was coming straight for us … it was only about 100 metres or so from us and then suddenly the change came through,” Burkinshaw told Al Jazeera, describing the sudden wind change that diverted the fire minutes before it hit them.
“It was just luck and impeccable timing, and it turned the fire about 100 degrees so it drifted back behind the park. We just had to contain it on the edges with the water truck and let it burn back into itself.
“It’s a surreal feeling,” he said, describing how the group had prepared to run into the ocean if they were unable to save the park from the flames.
“It’s like watching a movie … so much devastation but there’s also so much beauty in it. It’s eerie but it’s something that I hope I never see again.”
Burkinshaw posted some of his images on Facebook, which have so far received 650,000 views.
He described tearfully reading through the hundreds of comments voicing support for his community, which still remains at risk ahead of rising temperature forecasts.
“Absolutely brilliant photography that is graphically emotional, for we just fled the bushfire near Braidwood,” wrote one user on Sunday night.
“All your photos share the pain, fear and outright despair that the South Coast is currently experiencing,” another user posted, while others described the images as “heartbreaking”, “achingly beautiful” and “truly gut-wrenching for those of us that love this beautiful part of the world”.
During a “trying and hectic week”, Burkinshaw said he has watched the fire spread from 6,000 hectares (nearly 15,000 acres) last weekend to nearly 80,000 hectares (200,000 acres).
“It’s heartbreaking to see it like this,” said the photographer who has spent years capturing the natural beauty of the region.
Burkinshaw said the last fire in the area was in 1994, but climate change has increasingly dried out the region over the years.
Dams are dry, creeks are not running and rain is not expected in the area until mid to late January.
“That area that’s burning now, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a fire in there,” he said. “At a town meeting on Friday, the fire brigade said it’s just that dry out there, the fire won’t go out for about seven weeks.”