One person has died, two were missing, 35 were injured and more than 100 homes have been destroyed by wildfires razing Australia's drought-stricken east coast, officials said on Saturday.
Firefighters were battling 90 fires across Australia's most populous state, New South Wales, with the most intense in the northeast where flames have been fanned by strong winds, Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said.
"We still haven't got intelligence from a number of the fire grounds that we know have been impacted dramatically," Fitzsimmons told Nine Network television.
Firefighters found a body in a burned car near Glen Innes, Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said. Two residents remained missing.
Of the 35 people injured, 16 were firefighters, Fitzsimmons said.
"It's been an awful day as we know and, sadly, we're going to see some significant losses," he said.
Hundreds of people fled their homes along a 500-kilometre swathe of the eastern seaboard from the Queensland state border south to Forster.
Forster is a town 300 kilometres north of Sydney, Australia's largest city. Many spent the night in evacuation centres while some slept in cars.
"I think the problem with that area of mid-north coast is it was several fires, and they were all impacting on communities at the same time," Rogers said. "So firefighters were torn between trying to send help to one fire or another."
Progression of major fires today across NSW <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NSWfires?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NSWfires</a> <a href="https://t.co/KAZ3pW9i8O">pic.twitter.com/KAZ3pW9i8O</a>
More than 300 people vacated their homes overnight to a social club in the town of Taree, including Club Taree's chief executive Morgan Stewart.
"It was pretty scary," Stewart said. "We're hearing lots of stories of lost houses, lost property, goods and effects, animals, land. It's going to be horrific, I think."
Peter Lean spent the night on the roof of his house in the town of Wallabi Point extinguishing burning embers carried on strong winds.
This shows the dangerous conditions that have confronted firefighters and residents today. This is the crew from Warringah HQ at the Hillville fire near Taree. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/nswrfs?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#nswrfs</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/nswfires?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#nswfires</a> <a href="https://t.co/lIhnF8P1Qf">pic.twitter.com/lIhnF8P1Qf</a>
"I've never seen the sky so red since 2000," Lean said. "We've got winds blowing, they're circling, it's like a cyclone."
Less destructive fires were blazing in other Australian states.
The annual Australian fire season which peaks during the Southern Hemisphere summer has started early after an unusually warm and dry winter.
Hundreds of koalas killed
Wildfires have wiped out about half the koalas living on a coastal reserve in New South Wales, experts estimated on Friday.
A fierce early start to the wildfire season brought a blaze at the Lake Innes Nature Reserve that destroyed two-thirds of the koalas' habitat last month, leaving the rest under threat.
About 350 koalas living on the reserve in the north coast town of Port Macquarie have died in the bushfires, the group Koala Conservation Australia estimates.
That compares with a total population of 500 to 600 in the reserve, said the group's president, Sue Ashton.
Caretakers at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital nearby have been nursing rescued koalas, bandaging their wounds and feeding them eucalyptus leaves and formula.
"We look for signals of pain — teeth grinding, distress — and we just take it on a day-by-day basis," said Amanda Gordon, who leads the team, adding that some of the marsupials' health problems can be hard to spot.
Population estimates for koalas, native to Australia, vary widely, from as few as 50,000 to little more than 100,000.
Warmer weather brought by climate change threatens to worsen conditions for koalas, as deforestation has narrowed habitable areas, said James Tremain of the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales.
"Devastating bushfires are going to knock out some of these key population centres, but so also will increasing temperatures," he said, by affecting the nutrition value of the leaves that are the animals' sole food source.
"Koalas are definitely in trouble in New South Wales, but if the declines continue at the same rate as the last 20 to 30 years, koalas could be extinct in the wild by mid-century," Tremain added.