MELBOURNE (AFP) -- Catastrophic bushfires in eastern Australia have killed at least three people and forced thousands from their homes, with the death toll expected to rise as firefighters struggle towards hard-to-reach communities.
In the normally picturesque coastal town of Forster -- one among dozens hit along the eastern seaboard -- vast plumes of smoke shot out from multiple blazes as water bombers swooped in overhead.
And in Bobin, around 60 kilometers (35 miles) north of Forster, the whole town was scorched with some fires soaring 10 meters (30 feet) along the tree canopy.
Some homes were completely burned to the ground in the small rural town, and in one just a fireplace could be seen among the smoldering rubble.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that, if needed, the military could be called on to help some 1,300 firefighters who are tackling around 100 separate blazes.
Several people are still unaccounted for and 30 more have been injured -- mostly firefighters working for hours on end in smoky, smoldering scrubland and blazing forests of towering eucalyptus.
A body was found in a burnt-out building near the east-coast town of Taree, police said, while another victim was found in a car and a woman died despite medics trying for several hours to save her.
As hot and windy weather eased slightly on Saturday, the number of most serious fires fell to just a handful from an unprecedented 17 on Friday.
But within an area spanning almost 1,000 kilometers (600 miles), schools were burned and at least 150 homes were destroyed, while authorities were forced to evacuate detention centers and old people's homes.
New South Wales's rural fire service said an emergency warning was in place for four fires among the dozens raging across the state.
Bushfires are common in Australia and a vast corps of firefighters had already been tackling sporadic blazes for months in the lead-up to the southern hemisphere summer.
But this was a dramatic start to what scientists predict will be a tough fire season -- with climate change and weather cycles contributing to the dangerous combination of strong winds, high temperatures and dry conditions.
Meanwhile, New South Wales premier Gladys Berejiklian warned that next week's weather forecast "could mean we're not through the worst of it".