NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian has declared a state of emergency for the next seven days — the first time the powers have been invoked since 2013 — as the state prepares to face "catastrophic" fire conditions on Tuesday.
The state of emergency was declared by the Premier on Monday after Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons wrote to her on Sunday night requesting the emergency powers. The last time such an emergency declaration was made in the state was in October 2013, when there were extensive bushfires in the Blue Mountains, the Premier said.
The broad emergency powers allow the RFS Commissioner to control and coordinate the allocation of government resources; direct any government agency to conduct or refrain from conducting its functions; evacuate people from property; close roads; order the shutdown of essential utilities including gas and water; and take possession of property.
It comes as almost one million hectares of land has been scorched across NSW this fire season so far - almost more than the last three fire seasons combined.
"With catastrophic weather conditions predicted for this week, particularly Tuesday with hot weather and strong winds, I have decided to take the Commissioner's advice and make this declaration," Berejiklian said.
"It will ensure our state is best placed to respond to the predicted fire conditions."
Added NSW Emergency Services minister David Elliott at a press conference on Monday: "Last night I spoke and communicated with every commissioner of all of our state combat agencies and it was the unilateral advice, the unanimous advice that we declare a state of emergency for seven days starting today. This is a tool that governments very, very rarely use but it is a tool that is necessary."
Calmer weather conditions over the weekend brought temporary relief, allowing exhausted firefighters to draw breath and set containment lines after Friday's deadly blazes which claimed three lives.
But Tuesday's forecast for strong gusty winds, low humidity and extreme temperatures have caused fire authorities to issue a statewide total fire ban for Monday and Tuesday, and the maximum fire danger warning alert for Sydney and the Hunter on Tuesday.
On Monday morning there were 64 bushfires burning in NSW, with 40 yet to be contained and the Rural Fire Service warning "many of these fires won't be contained ahead of tomorrow's dangerous fire weather".
NSW RFS Inspector Ben Shepherd said more than 970,000 hectares had been burnt across the state so far this fire season.
"That is a massive area, almost more than the last three fire seasons combined," Inspector Shepherd said.
As weather conditions deteriorate on Tuesday, firefighters are bracing for "the worst conditions that are able to be forecast", according to RFS Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.
He said the fire danger meant firefighters would not be able to respond to or reach some people who call for help. The RFS is advising people to leave early and shelter in larger towns or shopping centres.
"The best thing you can do is not be in fire-prone areas," Commissioner Fitzsimmons said.
The death toll from last week's fires stands at three: Vivian Chaplain, 69, and George Nole, both from Wytaliba in the Glen Innes region, and Julie Fletcher, 63, from Johns River, north of Taree. A further 35 people, including 19 firefighters, have been injured in the fires.
Three firefighters were injured on Sunday afternoon when a tree fell onto their truck while they were fighting a blaze at Kian Road inland from Nambucca Heads.
"One firefighter was partially outside the truck when the tree fell, causing injuries to her head and neck," Fire and Rescue NSW Commissioner Paul Baxter said.
"The impact of the tree falling on the roof also caused head injuries to another firefighter inside the truck."
Ambulance paramedics treated the two crew members, who were taken to hospital in a stable condition.
Other services affected
The unprecedented bushfire danger has also caused a large portion of the state's national parks to be closed indefinitely.
All parks and reserves north of the Hawkesbury River were closed until further notice to ensure no one became trapped in a dangerous area.
The fires were also having an impact on a broad range of services including transport and education.
Fifty schools and TAFEs were closed on Monday, impacting HSC students sitting the final day of exams.
Regional trains from Sydney to Grafton, Casino and Brisbane were also cancelled until at least Wednesday, while dozens of roads remained closed around the state.
More than 150 homes have already been lost, with an expectation that number will rise once crews are able to fully survey the damage.
Meanwhile, wildlife advocates fear up to 350 koalas have been "incinerated" in fires near Port Macquarie.