NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said the fire was 100 metres from bypassing Tathra altogether but a sudden gust of wind swept it straight through the middle of the town.
Warnings were sent to residents by SMS and by phone calls to landlines, he said. There were also broadcasts on local radio.
Many residents said they were only told they had to evacuate immediately by police and fire services knocking on doors.
“Something worked to keep everyone alive,” Commissioner Fitzsimmons said. “We are still not counting bodies, or life-threatening injuries and for that we should be forever grateful.”
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said the hundreds of residents who have sheltered at an evacuation centre at the Bega Showgrounds would not be allowed back in as long as serious risks remained.
“We are particularly mindful of the amount of asbestos floating around,” he said.
Local state member Andrew Constance, who is also the NSW Transport Minister, said the damage was “heartbreaking”.
“We are not out of this emergency yet,” he said, after working through the night with residents.
Ms Berejiklian said she was inspired by the bravery of some of the locals.
“Many people went to help others not knowing if their own house was going to be OK,” she said.
More than 10 fires remain uncontained as of 3pm on Monday, but emergency services are hoping that showers bring relief on Tuesday.
Commissioner Fitzsimmons said it was likely that the current count of up to 70 homes destroyed was likely to rise by the time residents were allowed back in.
Ms Berejiklian and Commissioner Fitzsimmons have appointed Euan Ferguson, who managed the response to the North Coast floods in 2007, as the recovery co-ordinator for the Bega Valley fire.
Eryk Bagshaw is an economics reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, based in Parliament House
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