A large bushfire burning out-of-control near Ballarat has claimed 10 homes and a further 30 farm buildings, while rainfall has downgraded the threat of another fire in Victoria’s north-east.
Fire authorities issued an emergency warning for Yackandandah, Wooragee and Leneva, in the state’s north-east, for a fast moving out-of-control bushfire, on Sunday afternoon.
But by Sunday evening, improved conditions saw that downgraded to a watch and act.
About 8.30pm it had burned through 10,000 hectares, and was not yet under control.
The CFA described it as moving “slowly” in a northerly direction.
“Due to rainfall in the fire area fire crews are currently monitoring conditions,” the CFA said in a statement.
“Please remain alert to your personal conditions, report only running fire as smoke will remain in the area.”
Earlier in the day, spotfires and ember attacks were igniting as far as 2km ahead of the fire-front.
CFA’s Paul King described the outlook for the Barnawartha fire on Sunday afternoon as “grim”.
“Our firefighters are struggling to stand up at the moment in the wind. We have no obvious way of containing the fire,” he told The New Daily.
“It is burning under cyclonic winds, we have 70, 80, 100kmh winds, 40 degree temperatures and an out-of-control bushfire with lots of people in the way.”
There were 10 aircraft, including waterbombers and support craft, and numerous ground crews fighting the 5400-hectare fire.
A Watch and Act message was issued for a wider area around the fire, including the Wodonga, Leneva, Indigo Creek, Barnawartha, Yackandandah, Wooragee and Beechworth areas.
Homes, buildings destroyed near Ballarat
Damage assessment at the Scotsburn fire ground has found 10 homes destroyed, two properties unhabitiable and two homes to be damaged but liveable.
A further 23 sheds were destroyed. However, these numbers were not final.
By Sunday afternoon, the fire had burnt through about 4600 hectares, with eight aircraft and 70 trucks on the ground working to contain it.
A relief centre was established at the Buninyong Town Hall, but by 4pm on Sunday the warnings in the Scotsburn area had been downgraded to a watch and act.
The Midland Highway, between the top of Mount Buninyong and Elaine-Morrisons Road remained closed.
“Three other fires have been caused by lightning and we are covering all three. One is north-west of Lorne in the Otways National Park,” Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said.
“Likewise there are lightning strikes in the Black Range (State Park) and lower part of the Cathedral Ranges around Buxton.
“There have been a number of lightning strikes in East Gippsland – deep-seated forest east of Orbost and we are working to extinguish these today.”
CFA’s Graeme Baxter said the winds should move the fire away from the towns (near Ballarat) but he said it would also create difficult conditions for firefighters.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said it was too early to confirm how many of the properties lost to the 4000-hectare Scotsburn fire were homes.
“It is eight properties, some we know are houses but we can’t confirm the exact details on the split on what might be farming buildings, shedding versus homes,” he said.
“But there are some homes in that eight.”
Farm machinery may have sparked fire
Authorities believe the Scotsburn fire began on private land, but had so far been unable to assess the actual cause, while the other three were ignited by lightning.
Mr Andrews said the cool change coming from the south-west was not helping firefighters.
“Whilst the change has come in the south-west, it’s through Ballarat for instance already, that does not mean an end to the challenge,” he said.
“In fact it means a more pronounced period of real difficult firefighting, high winds, high temperatures and the wind change will mean a very difficult afternoon for our firefighters, a very difficult evening as well.”
Emergency Management Commissioner Lapsley said 300 fires broke out across Victoria on Saturday, on a day that delivered record heat in daylight and overnight.
The fire is moving towards the towns of Mt Mercer and Grenville and more fire crews are joining the fight against the blaze.
A Watch and Act is also in place for Mount Doran, Elaine and Clarendon.
Authorities are closely watching other blazes that ignited yesterday in Wandin North, Epping and Wonthaggi, with fire warnings still current for those communities.
A Watch and Act warning is currently in place for residents of Wandin North, Seville, Wandin East, Silvan.
Relief centre opened, emergency grants available
A relief centre is open at the Ballan Mechanics Institute and the first of a number community meetings today is taking place in Buninyong.
Victorian Emergency Services Minister Jane Garrett said relief assistance had been made available to people affected by the blaze.
“There are centres in Buninyong and Ballan where departmental staff and local government staff are there, up ready to hand out initial relief payments up to $1,300,” she said.
“I’ve also activated today the re-establishment grant process where people have lost their homes or cannot go back into their homes, there are grants of up to about $32,000.”
Robyn Procter and Paul Hassan from nearby Lal Lal said they got a call to say it was time to leave if that was their plan yesterday afternoon, but believe their property is safe.
“All we could see were big plumes over to the back,” Ms Procter said
They said they bought the house to retire into two years ago, and the previous owners said they had only had one fire in 20 years.
“We retired three weeks ago, to our property, we’re just going to wonder what retirement’s about – we’re a bit shell shocked,” Ms Procter said.
Extreme Victorian heat breaks December records
Melbourne’s temperature peaked on Sunday at 37.8 degrees Celsius at about 11:20am, before dropping to around 30C by midday.
Stewart from the weather bureau said records were broken in other parts of the state on Saturday.
“Moorabbin airport, which is just south-east of Melbourne, had 28.5 degrees as overnight minimum, Bendigo 29 degrees and Laverton 28 degrees,” he said.
“They were all records, surpassing their previous highest December overnight records.”
He said Avalon, Geelong, Aireys Inlet and Ballarat all broke records for December high temperatures on Saturday, with temperatures in the mid-40s.
The hot, dry and windy conditions from South Australia and Victoria are moving into NSW, with a number of fires burning around the state.
Total fire bans have been issued for eight areas across southern and western NSW as well as the ACT, with severe fire danger ratings in place across the same regions.
Conditions eased overnight, helping firefighters contain a blaze in thick scrub near Williamtown north of Newcastle, but authorities are bracing for soaring temperatures on Sunday.
“All fires are being monitored for flare ups,” a RFS spokesman said.
“The total fire bans have been triggered by hot dry winds, low humidity and very hot conditions that are expected on Sunday.”
Firefighters are closely monitoring a large bushfire near the NSW-ACT border which has been burning since Wednesday night.
NSW RFS is urging people to make sure their fire plans are in place with temperatures quickly rising.
Many parts of the state will hit at least 40 degrees, including the Riverina, the Central West Slopes and Plains, inland in the Hunter region and Penrith in western Sydney, according to the weather bureau.
The mercury in western NSW will rise to at least 41 degrees on Sunday, said the BOM.
SA ‘dodges a bullet’
After a week of extreme conditions, a cool change has finally arrived in South Australia.
Fire crews were on high alert on Saturday after four days of temperatures above 40C, but people across the state woke up to much cooler conditions on Sunday.
CFS spokesman Mark Wheeler said a cool change arrived in the early hours of Sunday, with temperatures dropping significantly and rain falling across the state.
“There are no fire events to speak of at the moment,” Mr Wheeler said.
“We effectively dodged a bullet yesterday.”
Some crops were destroyed as 15 fires burnt on Saturday, started by lightning strikes, as the mercury reached 42C.
‘It is too late to leave’
In Victoria, crews worked to contain over 300 fires across the state due to hot, windy conditions.
On Saturday morning, the CFA instructed residents in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges to take shelter and avoid leaving, while fires were also burning out of control near Wonthaggi and Wandin North.
The Wonthaggi fire has since been brought under control, while the Wandin blaze is rated as watch and act.
Later in the afternoon, the town of Elaine near Ballarat was hit with an out-of-control bushfire and residents were instructed to stay indoors, while some neighbouring towns were evacuated.
Storms in Victoria
Little respite was expected for the state, with the Bureau of Meteorology issuing a severe thunderstorm warning for Victoria, with winds of up to 100km/h.
Thunderstorms were also expected to bring dry lightning which authorities feared could spark new blazes.
Daytime temperatures in Melbourne hit new highs, with a top of 45.1C in Avalon, and remained high throughout the evening.
“Tonight is one of those nights that will stay hot across the state with the potential of seeing almost 30 degrees at midnight. It will not drop off,” Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said.
“It will then increase in temperature then we’ll see a very hot day on Sunday.”
Record temperatures in South Australia
Adelaide broke the record for its longest December heatwave on file as temperatures reached 40.9 degrees Celsius just before 12pm.
The city matched its December 2007 record of three consecutive days above 40C on Friday.
The severe heat forced Thoroughbred Racing SA to cancel a scheduled race meeting at Morphettville Racecourse on Saturday and wildlife and conservation parks on the Eyre Peninsula were also closed.
Hospitalisations and 000 calls
More than 300 people across Melbourne and Adelaide were admitted to hospital with heat-related illnesses on Saturday.
According to Emergency Management Victoria, a dozen cardiac arrests were recorded, along with respiratory-related illnesses.
In addition, four cases of children being left in cars were reported to 000.
In Victoria, police arrested a man in relation to a grassfire in Epping on Melbourne’s outskirts.
The 34-year-old man, of no fixed address, was arrested in Vearings Road about 12.50pm and assisted police with their inquiries.
The fire started in grassland along the Hume Freeway and Cooper Street about 10.15am.
No one was injured in the blaze and no properties were damaged.
Just after 2pm fire crews stopped the spread of the fire that threatened homes and businesses.
Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Debra Abbott said members of the public alerted officers to the man acting suspiciously near the Epping fire on Saturday morning.
She said he wasn’t a target of Operation Firesetter that focused on known fire bugs.
“It was actually a community response to suspicious activity,” she told reporters on Saturday.
Western Australia on alert
The DFES on Saturday morning issued a severe fire danger rating for inland parts of west Pilbara, including the Shire of Ashburton, due to a change in weather conditions.
“These are very hot, dry and windy conditions for a bush or grass fire,” the warning said.
“If a fire starts and takes hold, it will be unpredictable, move very fast and (be) difficult for firefighters to bring under control,” DFES said.
Meanwhile, a bushfire alert remained in place for people travelling on the Great Northern Highway between Kumarina Roadhouse and Three Rivers Station in the Shire of Meekatharra.
The out-of-control bushfire wasn’t threatening homes, but it was causing a lot of smoke in the area, the department said.
Another out-of-control fire was burning in the western part of Bullsbrook in the City of Swan.
It wasn’t threatening homes either, but had created a lot of smoke.
A fire nearby in east Gidgegannup had been contained, but a warning was still in place.
A blaze near Mundaring was also creating a smoke hazard in the area, but had been contained as well.
…And the worst could be yet to come
In Tasmania, total fire bans were set to continue on Sunday in response to soaring temperatures and dry conditions, with firefighters fearing the worst is yet to come.
Tasmania Fire Service chief Gavin Freeman says crews were able to quickly deal with six fires on Saturday, but ongoing temperatures in the mid-30s, wind gusts of up to 80km/h and the threat of dry lightning meant fire bans in the state’s north and south would remain in place on Sunday as well.
– with reporting from Emma Manser, Darren Devlyn and AAP and ABC