Devastated residents have returned to the scene of Victoria’s Great Ocean Road bushfire, with “ash and twisted metal” all that remains for some.
Authorities warn the danger isn’t over, with the blaze that has claimed 116 homes and holiday houses still out of control and temperatures set to hit the high-30s later in the week.
Emergency services escorted Wye River and Separation Creek homeowners back into the hamlets on Monday keen to inspect the damage inflicted by the 2300-hectare Jamieson Track blaze.
The bushfire, which was ignited by a lighting strike on December 19, destroyed 98 properties in Wye River – or almost a third of the town – and a further 18 in Separation Creek.
Former Victorian premier Steve Bracks has shared a holiday house at Wye River for 30 years.
His home was saved by a last-minute wind change, but many others were not as lucky.
Despite being anxious about going to see his house, Mr Bracks echoed the sentiments of others interviewed that people wanted to rebuild.
“This is a beautiful place, Wye River,” he told ABC.
“We have a special place nestled in the Otway Ranges and a three-storey rainforest on a white sandy beach with a beautiful point break, a great pub and store and a good community.
“It’s a haven for lots of us and I know people will be very very keen to re-establish.”
When asked if it was safe to rebuild, Mr Bracks said locals “understand the risks”.
“You understand the risk and you take those risks,” he said.
“So long as you accept that and you have plans on what to do in case of fire, I think that’s sensible.”
Kate Beamish lost her Wye River family home in the Christmas Day fire.
“It’s amazing to see this house, full of stuff, now just ash and twisted metal,” she told Ten News on Monday.
“We might not have a home and there’s quite a few people that don’t have their homes but we have a town and we’ll always have that.”
Sherryl Smith has been in Wye River for 20 years, full time for the past six, and lost her home and business.
“A life time of collecting artworks from all over the world, they’re all gone, my business is gone. It’s weird,” Ms Smith told AAP.
She said locals are “gutted” at how random the destruction was.
“You see the capriciousness of how the wind just whipped around and took that house and not this one.”
Former MasterChef contestant Jules Allen lost her childhood home.
“The house was built the year I was born, so we all grew up there and then my kids have all grown up there,” she told Network Seven.
Despite more than 100 firefighters working all night to contain the blaze, the Country Fire Authority says it remains out of control and a danger.
Deputy incident controller Mark Gunning said on Monday forecast mild fire conditions were expected to worsen as Thursday’s heat approached.
He said hundreds of firefighters were working around the clock to prepare for another potentially dangerous day.
“Aircraft are key to the attack given that the fire is burning in steep and mostly inaccessible terrain and this presents challenges for earth-moving equipment and ground crews,” Mr Gunning said.
Fire threat returns for New Year’s Eve
The Bureau of Meteorology is predicting a top of 35 for December 31, with wind gusts up to 35km/h in the hills of the Victorian coast.
But duty forecaster Dean Stewart said although Thursday’s conditions posed a problem, they would not be anywhere near as bad as those on Christmas Day.
Premier Daniel Andrews visited Wye River on Monday and thanked the “heroes” who helped save so many properties.
He said a bus tour by residents through the fire zone was an emotional and heartbreaking experience for everyone involved.
“The fact two-thirds of this town are still here and there are no funerals to go to is a testament to the work of everyone involved,” he said.
“We will stand with you to provide the support necessary to rebuild and to get through these difficult next few weeks and months.”
Mr Andrews also reiterated that people who lost their primary residence would be eligible for a $32,500 payment, while $1300 would be given per household for immediate needs like food, repairs and emergency accommodation.
Insurance Council of Australia spokesman Campbell Fuller said as of midday on Monday, an estimated $53 million in losses had been recorded.
He said that will keep rising as more people are allowed to inspect damage.
Bushfires hit tourist industry hard
Tourism has also suffered, with businesses on the Great Ocean Road set to lose $50 million in summer earnings.
Great Ocean Road Regional Tourism chairman Wayne Kayler-Thomson says the bushfire has significantly affected the area’s most profitable time of year.
“To put it in context, the Great Ocean Road region is the most visited outside Melbourne,” he told AAP.
-AAP, with ABC