Police will investigate a suspicious blaze that destroyed at least 10 homes in a rural hamlet in northern New South Wales.
Authorities believe the fire that ripped through the Rappville this week may have been deliberately lit, in what the NSW emergency services minister, David Elliott, has described as a truly “bastard act”.
NSW police and fire investigators have formed a strike force to determine the cause of the fire.
“In the absence of any other obvious cause, we always default to being suspicious, and we work through a very thorough process,” the NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, told the Nine Network. “We’ve got to call it out – it’s a heinous crime, a criminal act.”
Across the Busbys Flat and Drake fires, which have joined together in recent days, at least 21 homes have been destroyed.
Further buildings have been damaged but the Rural Fire Service says numbers will rise as more properties are inspected.
Fitzsimmons said 34 bushfires continue to burn across NSW, eight of which remain out of control. However, all fires are currently at an “advice” alert level after a number of emergency warnings were downgraded on Wednesday.
Allan Robertson lost his Rappville home and was left with the clothes he was wearing, his phone and “my worst thongs”.
He said he was uninsured and his partner was in palliative care.
“It was just like a massive fireball,” he told 10 News. “There was nothing you could do. The heat was horrendous.”
Another resident, Brayden Leschingkhol, told Seven News it was more like “hell from fire … not from this world”.
He became emotional as he recalled calling his mother, who lives in Newcastle, saying: “I told her I love her and basically told her goodbye.”
The NSW RFS said a number of residents were treated for minor burns and breathing difficulties.
The NSW transport minister, Andrew Constance, tweeted that stretches of rail line had been damaged by fire, with the Rappville rail bridge destroyed.
Some locals were still unaccounted for on Wednesday but authorities were working to get in touch with all residents who were forced to flee their properties.
The Rural Fire Service said residents would likely be unable to return home for a number of days given trees were down across roads and power lines were on the ground.
Overnight on Wednesday, another fire at Busbys Flat merged with one at Drake near Tenterfield as fire crews continued to backburn and set up containment lines.
However, the RFS warned that even though better conditions were forecast for Thursday the fires could flare again.