Firefighters battling two large blazes within a few kilometres of the Wollombi township face a long road ahead.
The Little L and Crumps Complex fires have been burning since late November - both believed to have been ignited by lightning strikes.
The Little L fire has burned through 65,000 hectares in Yengo National Park, to the west of Wollombi, while the Crumps fire in Corrabare State Forest (east of Wollombi) has reached 5000 hectares.
Wollombi Rural Fire Brigade captain Rob Tulloch said while crews are doing their best to contain the fires, significant rain is desperately needed to help their battle.
A severe fire danger warning was issued in the Greater Hunter region on Tuesday, and Mr Tulloch said the lack of humidity presented firefighters with challenging conditions.
The Little L fire reached emergency level on Tuesday evening, when it was blowing towards Putty.
Read more about how Tuesday's events unfolded in our blog below.
UPDATE: 5PM TUESDAY
The Crumps complex fire near Congewai has been upgraded to watch and act level.
The fire has burned through more than 5000 hectares in the Corrabare State Forest (east of Wollombi) and is being controlled.
People in the Narone Creek, Congewai and Sweetmans Creek area are advised to monitor the conditions.
The Little L fire in Yengo National Park, to the west of Wollombi, remains at watch and act level.
An evacuation centre at Cessnock Leagues Club has been operational since December 1 for people who have been evacuated due to the Little L and Crumps fires, as well as those on Leggetts Drive (Richmond Vale) and Paddock Run (near Putty).
A Department of Communities and Justice spokesperson said 29 people have registered at the centre and nine people are being assisted with emergency accommodation.
"Evacuation centres are set up to provide a safe place for displaced people to seek shelter, and life sustaining services such as catering, material aid, emergency accommodation, personal support and chaplaincy," the spokesperson said.
"Evacuation centres are established and managed by the Department of Communities and Justice staff and supported by non-government organisation partners, including Red Cross, Salvation Army, Anglicare/Samaritans, and the Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Support Network.
"Other agencies such as Local Land Services, NSW Health and local council may also support the evacuation centre."
UPDATE: 1.30PM TUESDAY
The Little L Complex fire, west of Wollombi, has been upgraded to 'watch and act' level.
Residents of Paynes Crossing, Wollombi, Laguna, Boree, Wallabadah, Bucketty and Congewai are urged to monitor the changing conditions, with a southerly change expected to arrive soon.
The Crumps complex fire, to the east of Wollombi, is being controlled and remains at 'advice' level.
The Three Mile fire near Mangrove Mountain (south-east of Wollombi) has been elevated to emergency level. Bucketty is among the locations that are advised to monitor conditions.
More than 430 personnel - including Rural Fire Service volunteers, Fire and Rescue NSW firefighters, National Parks, Forestry NSW, and teams from New Zealand and the United States - are on the ground at six blazes across the Lower Hunter, utilising 54 trucks and five aircraft.
The Ngarralingayil Barker College open day - which was scheduled to be held at the former Wollombi Public School on Wednesday at 4pm - has been moved to East Cessnock Bowling Club.
UPDATE: 12.30PM TUESDAY
Two bushfires within a few kilometres of the Wollombi township were at advice level at midday on Tuesday, but the community remained on high alert with severe fire danger forecast for the day.
Dozens of firefighters in at least 30 trucks have been deployed to the Wollombi Valley, where the Little L and Crumps Complex fires have been burning since late November - both believed to have been ignited by lightning strikes.
Adjoining fires at Gospers Mountain (Hawkesbury LGA), Kerry Ridge (Muswellbrook) and Three Mile (Central Coast) were elevated to 'watch and act' status on Tuesday morning.
The mercury was sitting at 38.9 degrees in Cessnock at 12.30pm, with a predicted top of 42 degrees.
Wollombi Rural Fire Brigade captain Rob Tulloch said Tuesday's lack of humidity presented firefighters with challenging conditions.
"We are trying to manage the fire, and are working on containment strategies, with some success," he said.
"Today is challenging, with low humidity of 10-12 percent, but the next couple of days have high humidity and no high winds forecast, so this allows us to put in backburns without fears of these becoming fires themselves.
"Everything is extraordinarily dry - we are being very, very careful about putting fire to ground."
Firefighting crews still have a long road ahead of them - significant rain is the only thing that will extinguish the fire any time soon, but dry conditions are expected to continue.
Mr Tulloch said he has "lost count" of the amount of days in a row he has been on the fireground.
"But it is what it is; we deal with what's in front of us," he said.
Mr Tulloch said he was grateful for the assistance of outside brigades, including the Kiwi strike team from New Zealand.
"Our local crews are starting to get very tired," he said.
"They have jobs that they have had to take leave from, and families.
"Quite a number of our members have had fire go past their own properties."
The Wollombi brigade, which has about 60 volunteers, has also been running a community information point at the Wollombi Tavern since early last week, where residents can stop by for face-to-face updates and information.
Local postie Darren Peace - whose daily delivery route extends from Millfield to Bucketty - said it has been a trying time for the community.
"Some people are quite anxious," he said.
"Until we get some good rain, this fire is not going stop."
Wollombi General Store re-opened on Tuesday with reduced hours, after closing on Saturday so the owners could prepare their property at Laguna.
An evacuation centre has been operating at Cessnock Leagues Club since last Monday.
EARLIER REPORT: 9AM TUESDAY
After a couple of days of clear skies, Cessnock City residents woke to a thick cloud of smoke on Tuesday morning as the Wollombi Valley prepared for another intense day of bushfire danger.
The NSW Rural Fire Service has declared a total fire ban for the Greater Hunter on Tuesday, with severe fire danger predicted due to hot and windy conditions.
The region was covered in an eerie smoke haze on Friday when the Little L Complex fire, west of Wollombi, reached emergency level.
The Little L fire has now burned through 65,000 hectares and has merged with nearby fires at Gospers Mountain fire in the Wollemi National Park (300,000 ha), Paddock Run near Putty (17,000 ha) and Kerry Ridge in the Muswellbrook LGA (36,000 ha) to create a mega-fire with a boundary of more than 60 kilometres.
The Crumps Road fire in Corrabare State Forest (near Congewai) has burned through 5000 hectares and Owendale blaze in the Pokolbin State Forest, near Broke, has reached 1000 hectares in size.
A top of 42 degrees is predicted in Cessnock on Tuesday, with a southerly change expected due push these blazes to the east and north.
RFS Lower Hunter public liaison officer Leanne Bell said in Tuesday's predicted hot and windy conditions, fires could break out and impact areas including Bucketty, Boree and Wallabadah.
Ms Bell said the RFS is aware that a number of structures have been lost in the Wollombi area this past week, but there have been some "good saves" too, and that building impact assessment teams are currently on the ground.
She said at least 30 appliances have been deployed to the Little L, Paddock Run and Owendale blazes, with assistance from New Zealand firefighters.
Fire and Rescue NSW units are assembling at Bellbird on Tuesday and will be tasked to Wollombi and Laguna should the need arise.
SCHOOL AND ROAD CLOSURES
Congewai, Laguna and Millfield Public Schools are closed on Tuesday.
Wollombi Road at Cedar Creek Road is open to local residents only, as is Great North Road between Wollombi and Bucketty; and Paynes Crossing Road, Yengo Creek Road and Stockyard Creek Road.
Roads into Yengo National Park are closed.
An evacuation centre is operating at Cessnock Leagues Club (1 Darwin Street, Cessnock).
People with respiratory conditions who are affected by bush fire smoke should activate their health management plan and seek medical advice if necessary. Take precautions, such as staying indoors and closing windows.
STAY SAFE AND INFORMED
Under severe fire conditions, the RFS urges residents to follow their bushfire survival plans and remain vigilant.