FIREFIGHTERS were forced to bunker down, surrounded by flames, as they tried to save homes north of Tamworth on Wednesday night.
As the Moonbi fire raged in strong winds, crews were trapped by fire that circled homes off Bendemeer Station Road - but managed to save all the properties in its path.
The Moonbi fire was dropped to advice level on Thursday as crew got the upper hand. It has burned through more than 4000 hectares.
Tamworth RFS Superintendent Allyn Purkiss told the Leader the fire had a perimeter more than 55km long.
"We haven't had a property loss yet, even up to last night. The guys from Loomberah sat at some properties all night and the fire went around them, surrounding them," he said.
"It would have been pretty scary stuff - and they stayed there for a number of hours, and then were able to get out this morning."
The crews were working on the properties off Bendemeer Station Road, running back up towards the Macdonald River.
"They worked extremely hard; they're doing an incredible job," Superintendent Purkiss said.
Two strike teams from the Western Region are currently backing up local crews on the fire ground, more than 70 firefighters attacking the blaze on Thursday.
The fire jumped from 3300 hectares to more than 4000 on Thursday morning, fanned by strong winds on Wednesday night.
Superintendent Purkiss said crews had managed to save 20 to 30 homes in the fire's path. They also saved the Blackjack telecommunications tower and other buildings with a sustained air attack.
"We've spoken to all of the property owners around the fire, so they know what is happening and what is forecast, and while the fire is now at advice level, if it gets going from the river it could be moved back to watch-and-act advice," he said.
A total fire ban is in place for Friday in the Northern Slopes - which covers Tamworth - and New England areas, with a very high fire danger forecast.
Police continue to probe suspicious blaze
Oxley Detective Acting Inspector Jason said police had spoken to several witnesses who had come forward with information on the suspicious blaze.
"Police are following a number of leads, and investigations into the cause of the blaze are continuing," he told the Leader on Thursday.
"We would make another appeal for anyone with information.
"We do believe this fire was deliberately lit and we would urge anyone who knows what happened to come forward."
Police believe the fire was sparked on the Moonbi Range, near the divided lanes, shortly after 10am on Tuesday.
Anyone with information on the fire is urged to contact Tamworth police on 6768 2999.