Biggest fires ever for NSW farmers and orchardists

ABC Rural
Skye Manson and Michael Condon

Updated 9 hours 0 minutes ago

Residents were on high alert when the wind changed direction suddenly as the Lithgow fire headed towards BilpinPhoto: The Lithgow fire heading towards Bilpin, a major fruit-growing area in the Blue Mountains. (Michael Andrews)

Audio: Farmers from southern NSW help to fight fires in Blue Mountains (ABC Rural)

The ferocity of the bushfires in New South Wales is taking even farmers by surprise.

The NSW Government declared a state of emergency for the fires last night after the Rural Fire Service conceded three of the bigger fires in the Blue Mountains could merge into one.

Already 50,000 hectares have burned, 200 properties have been lost and 100 more have been badly damaged.

More than 2,000 fire fighters from all over eastern Australia have been called in to help fight the fires in the Blue Mountains.

Some of them will help with risky backburning operations today to try and bring the fires under control, before difficult weather hits on Wednesday.

The RFS says a scenario where the major fires join up and then threaten Sydney is not out of the question.

Some of fighters will be working on the biggest fire, the State Mine blaze, near Lithgow, 140 kilometres from Sydney.

It has a fire front of 300 kilometres.

Ian Bush is in charge of one crew of farmers from Bookham in New South Wales, a community that was devastated by bushfire earlier this year.

He says conditions have been scary, but they were determined to repay the some of the kindness they experienced in January.

“The least we could do was to relieve some of the crews because it’s pretty stressful,” he said.

“The trucks were that hot that you just can’t touch the windows, you can’t touch the side of the trucks.

“Some of the material in the back of the trucks caught alight because it was just so hot.”

The prime apple growing region of Bilpin in the Blue Mountains is under threat today.

An evacuation order was issued Sunday afternoon and many residents have left.

A few orchardists are staying to try to protect their trees and property if the fire moves closer.

Sean Prendergast, managing director of Bilpin Cider Company, decided to evacuate on Sunday.

He says the threat isn’t over yet and already the locals are saying the fires are the worst they have ever experienced.

Mr Prendergast says Bilpin residents had previously considered the area safe from serious bushfires.

The effects of the fire are starting to spread much further than just the Blue Mountains.

Wine grape growers in Orange have expressed concern about smoke taint.

Vineyard manager at Phillip Shaw winery, Charles Simonds, says he was worried when smoke covered the vineyard last week.

“It did, in the beginning raise alarm bells and I was a bit nervous of what this would hold for the rest of the season,” he said.

“But I made a few phone calls and in the early season it’s not affecting the grapes it’s more if you get these smoke situations in December or January.”

Other rural communities are doing what they can to help.

Today at Coonabarabran, another community utterly devastated by bushfire in January, locals will celebrate at the Coonabarabran Cup.

People there are already passing around the hat with an appeal to raise money and return some of the favours and unassuming kindness they received when fires burnt through their farms and homes.