A firefighter has died in Victoria’s alpine region as authorities warned bushfire dangers were far from over despite improving conditions.
Father of two Bill Slade, a 40-year veteran employee of Parks Victoria, died when crushed by a falling tree on Saturday while battling to contain the Omeo blaze. His death takes the national death toll to 28.
Mr Slade, 60, of Wonthaggi, has been remembered for his legacy as one of the community’s longest-serving and fittest firefighters, an as a mentor.
His death is a significant loss for the forest firefighting family and the whole community, said Forest Fire Management Victoria chief Chris Hardman.
Mr Slade is survived by wife Carol and children Steph and Ethan.
“Although we do have enormous experience in identifying hazardous trees, sometimes these tree failures can’t be predicted,” Mr Hardman said.
“It would have been a traumatic experience for everybody on that taskforce.”
Mr Slade had worked on major fire incidents in the past including the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires.
His 40 years’ service was recognised in a presentation by Parks Victoria chief Matt Jackson in November.
Premier Daniel Andrews and Prime Minister Scott Morison both offered condolences to Mr Slade’s family on Sunday.
“He was much loved, an absolute mentor to many many people and we send our best wishes to Carol and his two kids, his broader family, friends, and his Forest Fire Management Victoria family,” Mr Andrew said.
His death shows the fires remain a dangerous environment, he said.
It is with great sadness that we confirm that a Forest Fire Management Victoria firefighter from Parks Victoria has been involved in an incident while working on a fire in the Omeo area resulting in a fatality. Family and fellow emergency personnel are being informed. pic.twitter.com/Fa9rYg1ffK
— Chris Hardman (@FFMVic_Chief) January 11, 2020
News of the tragedy came shortly before Victoria’s state of emergency ended midnight Saturday and as tourists were being urged to return to the NSW south coast as scattered rain and improved conditions brought reprieve to some areas.
Authorities are expecting cooler temperatures to continue over the coming week, giving thousands of exhausted firefighters a much-needed chance to strengthen containment lines.
Fire-ravaged tourist towns south of Sydney have been declared “open for business” and safe for visitors to enjoy for the first time since the New Year’s Eve infernos.
“Our very strong message to future visitors is to keep us in your thoughts over the coming weeks and months as you plan your holidays,” Bega Valley Shire’s Daniel Murphy said.
However firefighters stressed the dangers were far from over as huge fires – including a mega-blaze on the NSW-Victoria border – continue to burn and threaten some communities.
On Saturday night 20 fires were burning across Victoria and there was one ’emergency’ warning near Mt Hotham and 12 ‘watch and act’ warnings.
NSW firefighters were also battling serious flames in the Snowy Mountains region while four NSW fires were at watch-and-act alert level on Saturday evening amid 124 fires statewide and 3300 personnel working into the night.
The only NSW fire district with a ‘very high’ fire danger rating on Sunday will be north western. Six districts on or west of the Diving Range have ‘high’ fire danger.
Victoria’s Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said: “We’re a long way from the end of this … we have a long way to go in terms of our fire season.”
The famous sails of the @SydOperaHouse have been lit up in a special tribute tonight. While there have been many people, agencies and groups involved in the bush fire effort, there is special recognition for #NSWRFS volunteers who have given up their time to help others. pic.twitter.com/QEMfGxQz5k
— NSW RFS (@NSWRFS) January 11, 2020
Meanwhile firefighters and bushfire-affected residents will have access more free psychological counselling as part of a new $76 million mental health package.
“We need to ensure the trauma and mental health needs of our people are supported in a way like we never have before,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.
There had been serious concerns for potential bushfire horrors on Friday leading into the weekend but no homes were lost in NSW despite strong northerlies and a blustery cool change causing fires to jump lines and several emergency warnings.
Most residents in Victoria’s bushfire-stricken areas were granted a similar reprieve after hot temperatures and gusty winds wrought less carnage than feared.
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said authorities were “incredibly relieved” to have come through relatively unscathed.
“I strongly believe one of the reasons we came through it as well as we did was the preparation,” she said on Saturday.
“There is no doubt in my mind that that level of professionalism and preparedness allowed communities to survive another long and difficult night.”
Milder conditions are forecast for the next week to 10 days, meaning attention can turn increasingly to recovery and relieving exhausted emergency services workers.
However tourists are not expected to be allowed back to Victoria’s Alpine region for weeks and some local businesses are worried tourists could stay out for months.
Owner of the Bright women’s clothing store Chooks, Bernadette Harrington-McNally, said it was “annoying” the area was being perceived as so dangerous when it hasn’t seen a flame.
“No one is going to come back, I don’t know when they are going to come back,” she told AAP.
Victoria’s Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp said rainfall had been varied, for example East Bairnsdale received a rain dump of about 18mm while Mallacoota only received 2mm.
“It is a tale of two states at the moment in terms of temperature and conditions,” Mr Crisp said.
Authorities will spend the next few days trying to open the road into Mallacoota, which has been cut off for a week.
To date some 2097 homes, 216 schools and other facilities and 4287 sheds and other outbuildings have been destroyed since July, according to the latest building assessment count on Saturday.
That includes 1163 homes, 144 facilities and 2179 outbuildings since New Year’s Eve.