IN A BITTER blow to exhausted firefighters, arsonists are suspected of deliberately lighting the out-of-control Moonbi fire - and police are hunting them.
Gusts up to 30km an hour led to a flare-up late on Wednesday in the large fire burning across the Moonbi Ranges, north of Tamworth.
The blaze spiralled out of control on Tuesday, and is burning across more than 3000 hectares. Flames were fanned by north-westerly winds, which have pushed it toward the small village of Woolbrook.
A number of rural and remote properties were at risk on Wednesday; however, Rural Fire Service (RFS) teams stood guard to protect homes.
It's been tough for crews, many of the volunteer firefighters from the land themselves, Tamworth RFS Superintendent Allyn Purkiss said.
"They have been busy trying to keep their families alive, now bushfires are burning the rest of everything they've got," Superintendent Purkiss said.
"The frustration levels are quite high at the moment but, in the true Aussie spirit, they aren't giving up.
"They will do whatever they can to protect their friends, neighbours and communities."
The air attack managed to save the telecommunications tower at the top of the hill. At least 70 people were on the fire ground working to control the blaze on Wednesday, including local, out-of-town and interstate crews.
The fire was still at watch and act status at 5pm Wednesday, given the vegetation there and potential for wind conditions to change.
"The crews are tired and very frustrated with the weather - we don't know what we've done to upset the gods, but we've done it," Superintendent Purkiss said.
Oxley Detective Acting Inspector Jason Darcy said the fire was believed to have been deliberately lit about 10.30am on Tuesday.
"There is some information of suspicious activity in the Moonbi area near the New England Highway," he told the Leader.
"Police are appealing for anyone that has dash cam footage from that time and anyone that saw suspicious vehicles in the Moonbi Ranges or on the highway."
Detective Darcy said they had spoken to witnesses and were investigating reports of people acting suspiciously in the area just before the fire erupted.
"There is an investigation under way, and detectives and general duties are out there, and were out doorknocking on Tuesday afternoon at the peak, and involved in the road closures and evacuations put in place," he said.
It's expected the blaze will burn for the next two or three days with consistent wind conditions. It will be a mammoth job to bring it under control, but Superintendent Purkiss said they were throwing every resource at it.
Hard work and strong containment lines prevented the fire from ripping through the hills to the east of Tamworth, which could have posed a serious risk to the city.
Moonbi and Bendemeer public schools were closed Wednesday. Bendemeer will remain closed on Thursday, but Moonbi is expected to re-open as normal for students Thursday.
See all the events from the day in our live blog.