Victoria bushfires destroy homes

Houses destroyed in Warrandyte.
Houses destroyed in Warrandyte.

Up to 12 homes were destroyed and thousands of firefighters battled more than 150 bushfires across Victoria on Sunday amid nightmarish weather conditions, the worst since Black Saturday.

Southern firefighters battling the massive bushfires in Australia are helping to build fire breaks with hand tools and bulldozers in remote country, a fire boss says.

Thousands of people  were evacuated from their homes amid strong winds and temperatures in the high 30s as fast-moving blazes reached  suburban Melbourne. Gale-force winds also fed fast-moving fires in many rural areas, including East Gippsland, the Latrobe Valley and Shepparton.

Five rural southern firefighters, led by Warren Heslip, are among 2000 firefighters battling blazes in Gippsland, rural Victoria. There are 42 New Zealanders helping in the efforts.

National rural fire officer Murray Dudfield said their day-to-day work involved cutting firebreaks with hoes, axes, chainsaws and bulldozers.

High winds and hot temperatures made it too dangerous for the firefighters to tackle the flames yesterday, ntsG sunday nte but they were back into it today.

Living in tent camps, the southern firefighters travelled two hours a day to and from the fires and worked 12 hour shifts, he said.

They were doing hard work in remote country dominated by eucalypt forest.

Lightning strikes started the Victorian fires about a fortnight ago and many small fires had merged to form a massive fire covering between 10,000 and 20,000 hectares in state parks.

Rains predicted for the middle of this month were expected to help the 2000 firefighters get the fires under control, he said.

''There's a lot of hard work ahead.''

Several houses had been destroyed but no lives had been lost.

The southern firefighters were expected to work another week before flying home.

Thousands of people  were evacuated from their homes amid strong winds and temperatures in the high 30s as fast-moving blazes reached  suburban Melbourne.

Gale-force winds also fed fast-moving fires in many rural areas, including East Gippsland, the Latrobe Valley and Shepparton.

Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the crisis would continue through today and communities were still in danger, despite forecast lower temperatures, with dry, strong winds set to continue.  

Late on Sunday, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) reported 85 active fires and issued, according to a spokeswoman, an "unprecedented" 40 emergency warnings. 

At 9.30pm (local time) on Sunday night, there were 571 fire fighting trucks and other appliances still fighting fires. 

Across the border in South Australia, a large bushfire burnt out of control in the southern Flinders Ranges, with more than 33,000 hectares burned, threatening the towns of Laura, Wirrabara, Beetaloo and Stone Hut.

Lapsley said the Victorian fires had been "intense, fast-moving and in some cases  moved on to properties with limited time to warn residents in those areas".

Four houses burnt at Warrandyte, 31 kilometres from Melbourne CBD.

In Glamis Street, a teenage boy narrowly escaped a raging fire that tore through his family’s house.

Operations officer Mark Kennedy told residents gathered at St Anne’s primary school in Park Orchards on Sunday night that it was a "very significant achievement" for crews to contain Sunday’s Warrandyte fire to about 10 hectares, and limit the damage to four properties."

It was an achievement especially given the conditions we were facing of winds of up to 90kmh when the change came through," he said. "But some houses were just lucky ... there’s no other way to put it."

More than 100 firefighters and four water-bombing aircraft fought to stop the fires spreading. Several houses are believed to be destroyed in Mickleham and Craigieburn.

A new estate in Craigieburn was saved at the last-minute by helicopters waterbombing a fire front that came within metres of new homes.

Shortly before 7pm, large flames moved swiftly through paddocks between Wallan and Romsey as fierce winds fanned fires. At least a dozen firetrucks were rushed past Stennings Lane, under a still-hot sky.

Liz Paddock, from the small hamlet of Darraweit Guim, was readying to evacuate her 17-hectare property in Darraweit Valley Road as flames closed in on her house and that of her neighbour.

"The flames were getting closer to the house, coming across the paddock there," she said.

"They were at first going up the hill there, and I thought they would go past. But now they’re coming towards the house."

"I’m more concerned about my animals than anything," she said.

State Control Centre spokesman Gerard Scholten said relief centres had been established at Traralgon and Moe in response to a cluster of fires in the Gippsland region.

Late last night several homes near Morwell were reported destroyed.

The fire moved close to the Hazelwood power station, he said.

"It was starting to threaten one of the substations."

Residents in communities north of Shepparton have been urged to seek shelter with an out-of-control grass fire bearing down.

A CFA spokeswoman said there was "quite a cluster" of fires threatening communities located about 30 kilometres north of Shepparton.

About 7pm, the CFA advised residents in Numurkah, Wunghnu and Invergordon to seek shelter due to an out-of-control grassfire.

In East Gippsland, authorities estimate that fires may have burnt more than 200,000 hectares of bushland, but lives and properties were spared.

A group of 30 firefighters were still battling to save the school and hall at Goongerah on Sunday night.

More than 30,000 homes in Gippsland are without power after fire caused the collapse of high-voltage powerlines.

An SP AusNet spokeswoman said between 30 and 35,000 homes in west Gippsland had lost power after powerlines fell to the ground sometime between 9pm and 10pm on Sunday.

The spokeswoman said the situation was constantly "evolving", but fire was currently preventing repairs from taking place.

Police Commissioner Ken Lay said the situation across the state amounted to a "very, very dangerous environment". 

He said that police had spoken to several known arsonists, warning them not to start any fires.

Sections of major state highways were closed to traffic on Sunday, including the Princes, Hume and Calder.

Premier Denis Napthine described the extreme conditions as the worst since Black Saturday.

"Across Victoria today we’ve faced conditions that are the worst we’ve seen in five years," Napthine said.

"These are very extreme conditions, creating serious fire situations across the state."

He said the response from firefighters and the community had been outstanding, with many lessons learnt since the 2009 catastrophe that claimed 173 lives.

Chief Commissioner Lay said many people had heeded warnings and were prepared to leave when evacuation advice was issued.

"I can assure you all emergency services are working very hard to keep the community safe but we are in a very, very dangerous environment at the moment.

"Fire behaviour is very unpredictable and there are risks not only to the community but firefighters and other emergency services."

Napthine promised that assistance packages would be offered to people whose homes had been affected or who had suffered other hardship.

He praised Lapsley and all emergency services for an impressive response to the emergency.

"Victoria has responded extraordinarily well under these challenging conditions.

"We now have better warning systems, a better system of all emergency services agencies working together. We now have a community that’s more alert, more ready to respond to all this," he said.

Fairfax Media