NSW and Queensland bushfires: fears death toll will rise as blazes continue to rage

Ben Doherty
Photograph: Peter Parks/AFP via Getty Images

Three people have been killed and there were fears for another seven still missing after uncontrolled bushfires destroyed more than 150 homes over thousands of hectares of eastern Australia.

At a fire in the Kangawalla area, near Glen Innes on the New South Wales north coast, a body was found in a burnt-out car by a volunteer firefighter.

In an another death in the same fire, a woman was found unconscious by fire crews on Old Grafton Road at Diehard on Friday night. The woman was found with burns to 40% to 50% of her body and later died in Sydney’s Concord hospital.

The ABC named the woman as Vivian Chaplain, 69, with relatives saying she died “protecting the animals she loved”.

“The loss of her has devastated our family: there was nothing we could do,” said her daughter-in-law, Chrystal Harwood. “She was stuck and we couldn’t get to her.”

The body of a third person was found in a burnt-out home in the township of Johns River, north of Taree, after fire swept through on Saturday afternoon. The home belongs to a 63-year-old woman but a post-mortem examination will be needed to confirm the identity and cause of death.

More than 30 people have been injured in the fires, including 19 firefighters.

Fire chiefs and the Australian prime minister, Scott Morrison, warned that the death toll was likely to rise as fire crews reached isolated villages cut off by the fire.

“Sadly we have lost two Australians and I fear that we will lose more before the day is out,” said Morrison, speaking before the third death was confirmed.

Firefighters work to contain a bushfire along Old Bar road in Old Bar, NSW. Photograph: Darren Pateman/AAP

Many of the towns worst hit by the fires are surrounded by national parks and forest, and with only one road in or out. Power and mobile phone infrastructure was damaged by the fires and dozens of roads were cut.

A long-running drought across New South Wales and Queensland has left massive tinder-dry fuel loads across the east of Australia. On Friday hot temperatures and strong winds sparked – at one point – an unprecedented 99 fires running simultaneously across the two states. The armed forces began airlifts to evacuate people from fire-threatened towns.

“There was a huge and desperate focus to try and get firefighters, aircraft and emergency services to as many people in need as possible,” said the New South Wales Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons.

“But the reality is, and we have heard the 000 calls, [that] many people were calling in to say that they were isolated or trapped … or frightened with what was surrounding them, but we simply could not [get into] some of these communities. And it took many hours to even make it through.

“We can’t rule out the really grave concerns that there could be more losses or indeed more fatalities as we get through and identify details across these fire grounds.”

Conditions eased with lower temperatures over Saturday but Fitzsimmons warned they would worsen again early next week, with similar fire conditions forecast, but over a far broader swathe of the state.

“As we head into Tuesday … we’re expecting another day of difficult fire danger conditions … [and] we’re expecting a much larger geographic area across New South Wales to be affected by that worsening weather conditions,” he said.

“Beyond that, as the news reports are indicating, we’re expecting a cyclical pattern of weather, week after week after week, of increased, elevated fire dangers to come and go.”

Already, Fitzsimmons said, “we are seeing extraordinary fire behaviour … hostile, truly awful”, fed by a dry fuel-load and fanned by strong winds.

Fitzsimmons said the outlook for summer was dire.

Related: Out of control: bushfires blaze across Australia's east coast – in pictures

“Unfortunately, over the coming months, there’s no signal for rain but quite the opposite: above-average temperatures, below-average rainfall. We haven’t got into the worst of our traditional fire danger period yet. Summer is only around the corner.”

Already this season fires have burnt out more than three times as much area as last fire season.

Late on Saturday there were still more than 80 fires burning across NSW and Queensland, five of them at “emergency warning” level.

Uncontrolled fires were also running in Western Australia with a bushfire breaking out in suburban Perth. Three WA regions were expected to go to “catastrophic” warnings in coming days, as the state experiences extremely hot, dry and windy conditions.

Morrison was asked directly whether he believed climate change had contributed to Australia’s unprecedented early-season fires.

“My only thoughts today are with those who have lost their lives and their families, the firefighters who are fighting the fires [and] the response effort that has to be delivered,” he replied.

But the mayor of Glen Innes Severn council on the New South Wales mid-north coast, Carol Sparks, who believes she has lost her house to the fires, said she held no doubts global warming was increasing the number and intensity of fires across Australia.

“We are so impacted by drought and the lack of rain,” she said. “It’s climate change, there’s no doubt about it. The whole of the country is going to be affected. We need to take a serious look at our future.”

Morrison said he was speaking with chiefs of Australia’s defence forces over “contingency options” for more military involvement.

“Our defence forces are not trained firefighters,” he said. “But the ADF can provide a lot of support in logistics and other areas as required.”

Morrison said emergency service payments for people affected would be mobilised over the weekend – $1,000 per adult and $400 per child.