At least six people have died in the South Coast fires as firefighters brace for another potentially disastrous day on Saturday. At least 186 homes have been confirmed lost, and authorities said up to 80 per cent of homes and buildings in some communities had been destroyed.
"This is by no means the end of the losses, just simply because crews are still out assessing," NSW Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers said.
With coast residents and visitors cut off by road and without landlines and computers, communication was difficult. Most businesses were closed, with long queues for a Batemans Bay supermarket and for fuel, but with electronic payment down people were struggling to find cash to pay for fuel. The chaos was hampering efforts to evacuate areas that were accessible by road as people tried to return to Canberra and elsewhere.
The total number of deaths in the fires in the state's south was seven as of Wednesday evening.
Police said the body of a man had been found in a burned-out car on a road off the Princes Highway at Yatte Yattah about 7.30am. Another man had been found dead in a vehicle on Wandra Road, Sussex Inlet, about 11.30am. On Tuesday, a 70-year-old man was found dead outside a home at Yatte Yattah, six kilometres west of Lake Conjola.
Three people died much further south in the Cobargo area. On Wednesday, a body was found outside a home at Coolagolite, about 10 kilometres east of Cobargo. On Tuesday, father and son Robert and Patrick Salway were found dead at their property at Wandella near Cobargo.
On Monday, volunteer firefighter Samuel McPaul died east of Albury.
More deaths are expected, with a 72-year-old man still missing at Belowra, about 50 kilometres northwest of Cobargo.
Fears were held for an 81-year-old woman from Conjola Park, who was unaccounted for. Police confirmed on Wednesday night the woman was safe and well.
Three people with burns were airlifted from an area inland of Moruya, after waiting "for some time" for help to reach them. Two more had been evacuated to hospital by ambulance with a fire service truck escort.
On Saturday strong winds and temperatures above 40 are forecast.
NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said easterly and westerly winds would be "competing against each other" and converging over the fire ground, increasing risk.
"We've seen the enormity of devastation and destruction that unfolded yesterday and unfortunately the weather conditions coming in for Saturday are likely to be worse," he said. "This risk is very real, like we've seen up and down the coast for the last few months, we are not attempting to overstate the potential, but you only have to look at yesterday to know what might unfold."
Authorities are urging visitors to Eurobodalla to leave via Narooma as soon as possible, but warn people should only do so if they have enough petrol to get to Cooma.
"We urge visitors to leave Eurobodalla via Narooma as soon as possible. It is in their best interests and the best interests of our community. Only leave now if you have enough fuel to get to Cooma. We will advise as soon as fuel is available in Narooma and Moruya," the Eurobodalla council and rural fire service said in a joint statement.
"From Tomakin, travel south via George Bass Drive to Moruya. From Moruya, the Princes Highway is open to Bermagui. Take Bermagui turn off and travel via coast road to Tathra and on to Bega. These detours are signposted. The Snowy Mountains Highway, Brown Mountain, is open for travel to Canberra and west. Please travel calmly and obey traffic control."
Head of the Eden Fishermen's Recreation Club Andrew Terry said between 500 and 1000 people had evacuated to Eden and on Wednesday were trying to find a way out. He had reports of a 25 kilometre back-up of vehicles on the Snowy Mountains Highway from Bega to Cooma, with concerns about whether people had enough fuel to Canberra.
The Princes Highway remained closed on Wednesday evening from Moruya north to Batemans Bay, and from Tilba Tilba south to near Eden, leaving people having to use much slower coastal routes.
Mr Fitzsimmons said as many as 80 per cent of homes and buildings in some communities had been destroyed.
"It's an easier task, sadly, to count the buildings that are untouched or undamaged than it is to count those that are not," he said. "So we know that the damage that's been occasioned right throughout the south-east corner of New South Wales is a heavy toll."
On Wednesday, 186 homes were confirmed lost including 89 in Conjola Park, 40 in Malua Bay and 15 in Rosedale.
But officially confirmed numbers appear conservative. In Rosedale, Peter Morris, who stayed to protect property, said of about 120 houses in the township, about 60 were destroyed.
"It's like a bomb has gone off in Rosedale," he said.
Mr Morris, a Canberran, said he decided to stay with a few others to protect their holiday home and other properties. The fire, which came from the north, driven by a very hot strong westerly, before a sudden wind change, lit up the sky with the appearance of flame and smoke that brought darkness.
The main losses were in the area of north Rosedale, including Yowani Road, where people on the beach watched as the front "just destroyed house after house after house".
"It was quick. It was like firecrackers going off, gas bottles were going off. It was just horrific," he said.
An ember attack brought the fire to the beach end of Cooks Crescent, where one house went up in a big torch of flame, and two others followed. The fire service arrived in time to save other homes, including helicopters to waterbomb. The historic boat sheds were also lost.
On Wednesday, some people returned, to see "the place they've had for three generations is no longer there, and all the memories they have, the family holidays, just gone up in smoke in one day on the last day of the year".
"My God, I feel sorry for everyone," Mr Morris said. "I've almost got survivor guilt. There's so many friends who have lost houses there. I feel for them."
Many of the houses had asbestos and locals had been warned not to walk among the debris until a glue could be sprayed. With no power and no ability to cook or store food and no communications other than a transistor radio, Mr Morris and wife Margaret returned to Canberra via the Snowy Mountains Highway on Wednesday.
In Malua Bay, homes were lost in Sylvan Street and Mimosa Place and the Malua Bay Bowling Club, a watering hole on a large property in Sylvan Street, was also burned out.
Mr Fitzsimmons said efforts to confirm numbers dead and missing had been hampered by lack of communications on the coast, with phone lines, internet and email down, many towns cut off by road and only patchy mobile coverage.
Authorities were focused on getting power restored to petrol stations to get pumps operating, and getting food and supplies to people.
"The three big issues are power, communications and fuel. They're interconnected," he said.
Communications cells had been brought into the Batemans Bay evacuation centre for phone coverage and generators were being used to power businesses.
Stories of businesses lost to the fires emerged up and down the coast, including main-street shops in Cobargo and Mogo.
Batemans Bay Business Chamber president Alison Miers said the community was in shock and in the dark, with patchy mobile phone coverage, no landlines, no computers and no access to email. She had heard the jewellery shop that she used to own in Mogo was gone.
Businesses in the industrial park at Batemans Bay have been devastated, with at least four major businesses reported gone, and others believed to have been damaged.
"It's mayhem," Ms Miers said. "No-one can go anywhere. The roads are gridlocked. We are holed up and we have no information.
"I think everyone's in devastation mode. I just don't know where we go from here."
The Coles supermarket opened on Wednesday in Batemans Bay, but the queue for food and for fuel was hours long, and the fuel station could only take cash.
"It's horrific, it's like a war zone. There's just no way to describe it," Ms Miers said.
Bureau of Meteorology duty forecaster Jake Phillips said temperatures were increasing dramatically, with 41 degrees expected in Canberra on Saturday, and the possibility of similar temperatures extending to the coast if there was no sea breeze.
With hotter westerly winds expected again, the result would be severe fire danger or worse.
The Navy is sending HMAS Choules, an amphibious ship, which is expected off Mallacoota in Victoria by Thursday morning. The ship is available also in NSW to help isolated communities, but it is unclear what precise role it might have in nSW.
Rear Admiral Jaimie Hatcher said the ship included a helicopter and disaster relief equipment, supplies and personnel.