Specialist firefighters have joined Tasmanian emergency services to combat a bushfire that is threatening a half-billion-dollar eucalypt plantation.
The Gell River fire began as two separate lightning strikes 10 days ago, sparking blazes that joined together and have now burned about 18,000 hectares in the south-west wilderness.
It now has a 90-kilometre perimeter, with infrared imagery taken by helicopters showing spot fires and flames burning up mountainsides.
The Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) said there was no immediate threat to the small communities in the upper Derwent Valley, but that the greater Hobart area was likely to be affected by smoke in the coming days.
In Victoria, residents n the farming community of Willung, in Victoria’s Gippsland region, are being urged to seek shelter immediately as an out-of-control bushfire threatens lives and homes.
An emergency warning was issued to residents around lunchtime Monday, with the blaze travelling south-west towards the community.
The fire was within about 1.5 kilometres of the nearest home about 3pm, according to the Country Fire Authority (CFA).
The warning applies to residents along Gormandale-Stradbroke Road, where an active fire of up to 70 hectares was burning in the Chessum Road and Merton Vale Road area.
CFA incident controller Peter West said water bombers had been deployed from Melbourne and about 200 firefighters were on the ground.
“With the winds this afternoon, they’re a little bit unpredictable and strengthening so that’s why it’s still quite risky,” Mr West told ABC Radio Gippsland.
“However, we do have resources on the ground, they are working to a plan, they are holding the fire on the Chessum Road,” he said.
Water bombers have been dropping retardant on the blaze to give crews more time to work.
“We will be actively doing what we can from the air,” he said.
Tasmania fire will be ‘drawn out battle’
Despite favourable weather conditions over the next few days, Tasmanian incident controller Rod Sherrin said crews were preparing for a drawn-out battle in difficult terrain.
“It’s a large fire on the landscape and history will tell us it will take some considerable time to bring it to a conclusion,” he said.
Mr Sherrin said dozens of people were working on the blaze, with firefighting aircraft ready.
The south-eastern side of the fire had entered the State Government-owned Sustainable Timber Tasmania eucalypt plantations, affecting a “small amount on the edge”, he said.
We are talking in excess of $600 million worth of standing timber although, at this point in time, that amount hasn’t been affected … we currently have Sustainable Timber Tasmania crews actively firefighting that edge”.
A temporary bridge will be put across the Florentine River to access the plantation so large earthmoving machinery can move into the area and bolster containment lines.
Sprinklers have been installed around Lake Rhona and ground crews are working to protect pencil pines and other alpine vegetation.
Parks and Wildlife Service (PWS) deputy incident controller Nic Deka said every effort was being made to protect the vegetation.
“One of the reasons they are high value and we do protect them is that they have no tolerance of fire so once damaged it takes many many years to recover and certainly not in our lifetime,” he said.
Rain needed to reduce risk
Fire ecologist Grant Williamson said smoke would continue to be an issue.
“The impact of smoke at the moment is going to be the major worry,” he said. “There’s no severe fire weather forecast over the coming period. Certainly if the fire continues to burn over the coming weeks that could happen again.”
He said lower wind speeds and temperatures over the coming days would help firefighting efforts but a big rain event was needed.
“[The fire] is going to have difficultly getting into those wet forests, they don’t usually burn under these sort of mild weather conditions so hopefully that gives the opportunity for TFS and Parks to get it under control,” he said.
The speed of the response has been the subject of criticism from environmentalists and a union representing PWS workers – with Emergency Services Minister Michael Ferguson hitting back, describing the comments as “pathetic”.
But Mr Williamson said the response was about managing priorities, with authorities deeming it important to have crews in reserve.
“There was a severe fire weather forecast and they have to balance fighting wilderness fires with having resources available around populated areas around Hobart,” he said.
“On Friday we saw a lot of small fires cropping up around Hobart and the surrounds, so it’s important to have crews available for those as well.”
Mr Sherrin said the speed of the response was appropriate, describing the activities of PWS as “admirable”.
“It was in a difficult spot to get to, it was a lightening strike, they had waterbomber aircraft as soon as practicable and as soon as they could they inserted their remote area teams to do some active firefighting,” he said.
“They were actively fighting on that fire prior to the total fire ban day,” Mr Sherrin said.
As the fire is affecting a national park, the State Government can make a claim for the expenses associated with fighting the blaze to the Federal Government – but it would need to demonstrate that the costs incurred for the disaster were extraordinary.