It was the worst Christmas present ever – an out-of-control bushfire threatening beachside towns in Victoria and forcing many to evacuate before they could even sit down to family lunch.
While no lives were lost in the fires along Victoria’s Surf Coast, a total of 116 homes in Wye River (98) and Separation Creek (18) were destroyed by the blaze, the majority of them holiday properties.
The insurance industry declared the fires a catastrophe, and estimated the damage bill could top $38 million.
A “catastrophe” classification means claims resulting from the bushfire will be given priority.
Those affected will be also be able to access up to $1300 in emergency relief.
The Victorian and Commonwealth governments on Saturday confirmed households hit by the fires would be able to apply for up to $1300 in immediate natural disaster relief, and $32,500 in re-establishment payments.
Residents return home
“Many people are understandably distressed as they wait to find out what has happened to their properties around Wye River and Separation Creek,” Australian Red Cross State Manager Emergency Services Angela Sutherland said.
“We’re not sure of the final impact … But we know that people need our help now, and they will continue to need it for some time yet.
“It’s still early days but it’s important that people know that recovery from an emergency like this can be a long process that can take months and even years. Experience shows that it can be helpful to people’s recovery to get involved in local support activities and reach out for help, be it from family, government or community services.”
The story of a Victorian firefighter who watched his own house burn to the ground while trying to save the homes of his friends is what stands out most for Terry Woodcroft.
A resident of Wye River for 40 years and now the area’s deputy mayor, Mr Woodcroft has seen it all when it comes to the small tourist town tucked away in bushland on the coast.
Until Christmas Day, Wye River and the nearby town of Separation Creek were not well known in Australia.
But now, they have become the towns most affected by the raging, 2200-hectare bushfire triggered by a lightning strike on December 19.
“At the moment, I’m at the Surf Club in Wye River just looking up the hill at the couple of residences that have been destroyed by the fire,” he told AAP on Saturday afternoon.
“For a person such as myself who lives in this shire, it’s quite a sobering site to see homes not unlike my own completely destroyed.”
Mr Woodcroft said he was amazed at the resilience of those who have lost everything.
“I was talking to one gentleman earlier in the day who is a firefighter and he was visibly trying to save other areas of the town and was able to see in the direction of his own home while it was burning down,” he says.
“What’s striking me at this stage is just how strong everyone’s being.”
AAP photographer Julian Smith said the main street of Lorne was “post-apocalyptic” on Christmas Day, as lit-up restaurants had tables laid with half-eaten food, clearly abandoned in haste.
“Outside a Chinese restaurant there was a banquet of full dishes idling on an al fresco table. Some of them haven’t even been touched. It’s clear they have dropped everything and run for their lives,” he told AAP.
Although Lorne residents were given the go-ahead to return from 9am on Boxing Day, howling winds and delayed rainfall on Friday had people believing the predicted ember attack would wreak havoc on the popular holiday town, Smith said.
Saturday was calmer, but the fire was still burning. It was time for people to face the devastation left behind by the blaze, something which Mr Woodcroft said was difficult to see.
“There are lots of people hugging, being emotional,” he told AAP.
“They’re just so stoic, so staunch, perhaps consoling people. They’re just bearing up as best as they can.”
However, it’s not only people who suffer in bushfires.
Amy Hidge from Wildlife Victoria says while it’s still too early to say how many animals had died in the fire, people who come across an animal that “looks off” should call Wildlife Victoria.
“We understand that at the moment looking for animals is a low priority, but at this stage we just need people to look out for bushfire-affected animals,” she told AAP.
“Often, you can’t see if the pads on their feet have been burnt or if they have smoke inhalation, so we’re saying that if they look a bit off, they’re probably bushfire affected.”
‘Smart choices’ saved lives
Authorities said Victoria should “stand proud” that no one died and communities heeded warnings to evacuate.
Emergency Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley expressed disappointment that so many homes were lost but said it could have been worse.
Commissioner Lapsley said the local CFA brigade was only able to protect several major sites but other support fire trucks went into the area yesterday afternoon.
“They did really well yesterday. It could have been into the 200s [of homes lost] and it’s back now to over 100,” he told 774 ABC Melbourne.
Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews said residents and authorities in the area acted quickly and effectively.
“It’s only through people making smart choices, the work of Victoria Police, the work of our emergency services fighting the fire, and all of our other partners that we have had no injuries, no loss of life,” Premier Andrews said.
“This is really a very challenging fire but one — in the planning and the execution, and indeed in terms of the outcomes — where no person has been harmed. That’s something that we can be very proud of.”
The worst could be yet to come
The blaze could burn all the way through summer.
Mr Lapsley said the fire was intense though not large, and had been pushed along by strong winds.
It could continue burning until January or February because a dousing of rain on Saturday was unlikely to do much in the long term once the state began to dry out.
– with ABC and AAP