Ian Wheeler’s bloodshot eyes say more about the last four days in the so-small-it-barely-registers village of Killabakh, on the New South Wales mid-north coast, than he ever could.
Along with his partner, April Walsh, Wheeler spent Wednesday the same way he’s spent every day since Sunday: engulfed in smoke.
The Rumba Dump fire – as it is known – tore over the ridgeline overlooking their property on the weekend and has spent the days since spreading along the mountains that surround them on three sides.
The two of them explained – while running back and forth from the creeping fire front with hoses and cheering the helicopters who dumped a steady load of water onto the blaze – that this was, in fact, nothing.
“We were here until 2am, maybe 2.30am this morning,” Wheeler said. “That whole mountain across from us was glowing, literally glowing. I have never seen anything like it.”
“It just keeps changing direction,” Walsh added. “It was coming down from one direction, then it was coming from the other side of the hill, then it was going back the other way again. It’s all around us.”
This fire alone had already burned through more than 27,000 hectares by Wednesday afternoon, and remained out of control in a number of places including Killabakh, which lies about 20km north of Taree. The damage could easily be missed. Nearby on Wednesday Guardian Australia stumbled upon the abandoned remains of a burnt-out home at the end of a rough cattle track, its singed solar panels still standing amid the ruins.
All told, the hundreds of bushfires across New South Wales have now ripped through more than 1 million hectares across the state, amid an unprecedented bushfire emergency still unfolding before the Australian summer has even begun.
North of the border in Queensland, where at least 14 homes were destroyed, heavy winds caused havoc through most of Wednesday, whipping fire fronts through thousands of hectares of dry bushland.
On Thursday morning, 61 fires were still burning in NSW, while 80 were still alight in Queensland.
The Queensland premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, said on Wednesday evening that 400 people had been evacuated from the town of Buxton, 76km south of Bundaberg.
“The fire is expected to have a significant impact on the community,” Queensland Fire and Emergency Services warned.
Firefighting crews were battling more than 80 fires on the ground in that state, though there was hope that easing weather conditions could bring a reprieve on Thursday.
At Pechey, north of Toowoomba, one of two emergency level fires, a privately owned water-bombing helicopter crash-landed in gusting winds, tipping onto its side and injuring the 70-year-old pilot.
The pilot was taken to hospital in a stable condition, but the abandonment of the helicopter posed a significant problem for firefighters worried it could explode as the fast-moving fire front moved through the area.
Homes in Noosa North Shore were evacuated for the second time in a week, as a bushfire returned to the bushland area connected to the Sunshine Coast holiday strip by a river ferry.
And in the Scenic Rim and the hinterland of the Gold Coast, where multiple fires were burning, authorities said any changes to wind patterns could be devastating overnight.
The Scenic Rim mayor, Greg Christensen, said the situation was “unprecedented” and there was a 90km stretch covered by active fire.
“I’m concerned certain wind conditions could push rapidly towards some communities. I’m equally concerned that the fire has the potential if wind conditions are right to cause ember attacks to the north ... and that could threaten a number of residents,” he said.
Across the country in Western Australia, a bushfire reportedly destroyed two homes and damaged two others in Geraldton.
The mayor, Shane Van Styn, said he had been told about property loss at Utakarra but it was yet to be officially confirmed.
Wednesday brought some reprieve in NSW after Tuesday’s catastrophic fire danger, but there were still dozens of blazes keeping firefighters and residents busy. Just south of Killabakh, in the suburb of Hillville, a fire was briefly upgraded to emergency level again on Wednesday thanks to gusting winds that seemed to make spot fires break out at will.
Geert Lampen’s home there was spared, though only just, thanks to two helicopters relentlessly water-bombing a fire as it approached his home.
“This place has been like an airport,” he told Guardian Australia.
Lampen’s family evacuated earlier in the week along with much of the suburb, but he stayed behind to protect his home.
When the wind picked up on Wednesday morning it pushed the fire that had burned more than 22,000 hectares in a north-westerly direction and towards his home.
“It’s scary, you know, when the fire has been coming and you knew it was coming but all you could do was try to prepare and basically be on lockdown. You just do what you can.”
More than 50 properties were destroyed on Tuesday while firefighters dealt with some 300 blazes across the state. But there were still some 73 fires burning, 50 of which were uncontained.
In smoke-filled Taree, residents waited nervously for news at the packed-out evacuation centres. Both the Taree and nearby Wingham’s showgrounds were at full capacity, while families were setting up makeshift camps at an evacuation centre at Club Taree, with cars parked up to the gates.
“You just think, how long is your luck going to last?” Sharon Chamberlain told AAP as she fed her neighbours’ horses, left behind at the evacuation centre as their owners battled blazes.
“When you lock the door for the last time and you walk away, and you don’t know if it’s going to be there when you get back, that’s one of the hardest things.
“How much more are we expected to take?”
The commissioner of the Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, said on Wednesday that many firefighters were feeling “deflated” after a gruelling running battle.
Many residents feel the same. “I’m just exhausted,” one woman in a nearby general store told Guardian Australia. “Everything has been packed up for days, I don’t know whether I’m coming or going.”
The people here have gotten used to living in thick smoke. In Rainbow Flat, where fires destroyed a number of properties on Friday last week, people were still coming to terms with what has happened.
Col Meredith was one of the few who stayed behind in the small village when fires tore through on Friday night. Col’s house survived, but his neighbour a few hundred metres up the road wasn’t so lucky.
Despite helping to protect his and a few other neighbours’ homes, he feels guilty he wasn’t able to stop the fire tearing through his friend’s property.
“I wasn’t sleeping, just lying in bed about midnight hearing the crash of the trees. I heard a big bang and thought it was just another tree but when I came back here in the morning, it was the roar of the house going.”
A few days later, he’s still reliving Friday night. It was scary, he said, to watch the speed at which the fire moved up the ridge near his home.
“It’s an adrenaline rush, you know, I slept four hours last night and that’s the most I’ve slept in days. I’m tired and I’m aching but I was still up at 5am,” he said.
Police investigations have begun into some of the NSW fires, while two men have been charged with possessing RFS equipment, with one reportedly seen in the Royal national park dressed as a firefighter.
A local mayor, Jennifer Anderson, slammed potential arson in the the Sydney suburb of South Turramurra as an “almost unimaginable” act during Tuesday’s catastrophic fire conditions.
“As mayor it seems almost unimaginable that someone would put our community in such danger,” she said.
At one point, 16 fires were simultaneously at “emergency” level as Greater Sydney, Greater Hunter and Illawarra-Shoalhaven had the “catastrophic” rating and despite remaining dangerous on Wednesday the NSW premier, Gladys Berejiklian, admitted she was “hugely relieved” that there had been no further deaths since the weekend, when three people died in rural NSW.
“I have to confess to being hugely relieved this morning that yesterday our amazing volunteers and emergency service personnel withstood the catastrophic conditions and did manage to save life and property,” Berejiklian told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday.