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Australia fires: NSW devastation laid bare as 72 homes destroyed in SA bushfires

The devastation from Australia’s bushfire crisis became clearer on Sunday, as the South Australian premier said 72 homes had been destroyed and his New South Wales counterpart revealed there was “not much left” of the town of Balmoral, south-west of Sydney.

It is feared the figures for homes lost may get much worse as authorities continue to assess the damage from Saturday, and with dozens of fires still active.

Conditions eased in NSW, Victoria and South Australia on Sunday, allowing fire-threatened areas some respite.

But the NSW Rural Fire Service commissioner, Shane Fitzsimmons, said an estimated 100 buildings could have been lost in Balmoral, where Gladys Berejiklian said there was “not much left”. “The toll is significant,” Fitzsimmons said.

The Green Wattle Creek fire tore through the town on Saturday for the second time in three days. Residents have not been allowed to return to see if their homes are still standing, with expert teams on the ground assessing whether it was safe to do so.

A man who was reported missing during the Grose Valley fire in the NSW Blue Mountains was found safe in an evacuation centre, but another elderly man from Bell near the town of Lithgow was missing as of Sunday afternoon. The area was engulfed in flames on Saturday.

By Sunday evening there were only two fires in NSW at watch and act level: Gospers Mountain and Grose Valley.

Fitzsimmons said the “relentless nature” of this fire season was taking a toll on firefighters. Despite the easing conditions, Fitzsimmons warned that didn’t mean the situation would improve considerably without substantial rainfall.

“We’ve got to keep in mind that we’re not expecting any rainfall to make any meaningful difference to these fires until January [or] February,” he said.

“That’s still a way to go. We’re still talking four to six weeks at best before we start to see a meaningful reprieve in the weather.”

Conditions also eased in South Australia, but the premier, Steven Marshall, confirmed 72 homes had been destroyed in the Cudlee Creek fire in the Adelaide Hills, up from 15 reported on Saturday. A total of 404 outbuildings and 227 vehicles were destroyed in that fire.

The smoke from the Adelaide Hills reduced the city’s air quality rating to poor.

In Victoria, conditions for the fires in Victoria’s East Gippsland eased, with watch and act warnings in place for a fire in Tambo Crossing, Wattle Creek and Stirling, and another at Marthavale-Barmouth Spur.

Fires burning in the state since 21 November flared up on Saturday after the cool change brought with it dry lightning strikes.

Smoke from the NSW fires made its way up to Queensland, where another day of severe fire danger was forecast for Monday.

The prime minister, Scott Morrison, returned to Australia from his holiday in Hawaii on Saturday night.

Morrison spent Sunday touring the RFS headquarters in NSW, before visiting an evacuation centre in Picton and an emergency fire control centre in Wollondilly.

The prime minister met the widows of the two firefighters, Geoff Keaton and Andrew O’Dwyer, who died in a truck rollover last week.

At a press conference on Sunday morning, Morrison apologised to people who were upset for him going on holiday during the bushfire crisis.

He said the secrecy surrounding the trip was because it was family leave, and tried to draw a line under the criticism of his decision to take the trip.

“The time for that discussion is over. We need to focus on what is going out there today. Let me finish by saying this … it is time to be kind to each other. This is not a time for division, it is not a time for argument, it is not a time for partisanship, it is not a time for point scoring,” he said.

The prime minister acknowledging that climate change was having an impact on weather events, but indicated there would be no change to government policy, including Australia’s controversial policy of using carryover credits for meeting targets in the Paris agreement.

Morrison said a council of Australian governments meeting would be convened in March to discuss the response to the fires and how to plan more effectively.

The opposition leader, Anthony Albanese, praised emergency management minister David Littleproud for providing updates to him about the bushfires, but said he had not been able to secure a tour of the RFS headquarters Morrison visited in the morning, despite requests.