FIREFIGHTERS who had been on high alert throughout what was described as the most critical bushfire-risk day in many years breathed a sigh of relief as cooler night temperatures arrived - until in the pre-dawn darkness of yesterday the madness of an arsonist returned to haunt the Lithgow community.
Around 4.30am urgent triple-0 calls began and firefighters were called from their beds to deal with a bushfire surging up the mountainside at the Vale of Clwydd, near Lithgow.
Fanned by gusty winds which had accompanied the cooler change the flames were moving quickly and posing an imminent threat to homes along Hartley Valley Road.
Rural Fire Service crews from across the district were ordered to the scene together with Lithgow, Lithgow West and Wallerawang town brigades.
A crew from Katoomba Fire and Rescue was sent to Lithgow to provide protection.
With the fire out of control and spreading rapidly police doorknocked to evacuate residents considered most at risk from homes along the section of Hartley Valley Road and Doctors Gap.
The residents and their pets were taken to the Vale Hall where other residents came to their aid with offers of food and drink.
At first light the RFS brought two water-bombing helicopters into the battle, utilising water from dams at Clarence.
The main concern was for homes at Clarence.
The Bells Line of Road was closed for a time early yesterday because of thick smoke blanketing the area.
It was able to be reopened after a wind change but authorities were warning that closures could come at any time.
The Hartley Valley Road was also closed south of Berry Street and was to remain closed overnight.
The Hassans Walls Reserve is also closed to the public until further notice.
The fire was the most serious in the Lithgow area in recent years.
The battle against the Vale of Clwydd fire continued through the day and by late yesterday afternoon firefighters appeared to be getting the upper hand.
Authorities were planning backburning operations for last night if wind conditions permitted.