A newlywed couple and their 150 wedding guests were forced to shelter in a stable when a bushfire threatened lives and homes on a farm in Victoria’s west.
Elle Moyle was hosting her friend’s wedding on her property in Gazette, south-east of Hamilton, when the flames headed straight for them.
“We smelled the smoke at the venue and within 10 minutes the sky was completely red,” Ms Moyle said.
Ms Moyle said the party sheltered in their large brick stable, which was surrounded by watered gardens.
She said everyone was terrified.
“Initially there was no way to get them out because the bus driver wasn’t there and the bus was locked so no one could drive it,” she said.
“The flames were only 100 metres away… the winds were crazy.
“We did our best to keep everyone safe and get them out of there but it was very touch and go.
“Then right at the dying hour the bus driver showed up so were able to get everyone safely out on the bus.”
Ms Moyle said the bride – who was still in her wedding dress – and the guests, were all from the country and handled the situation well.
Among the wedding guests happened to be off-duty Country Fire Authority captains who were able to help out.
Ms Moyle said the fire’s front eventually went over the property but they lost her brother’s home and two sheds.
That was one of an estimated 18 homes to have been destroyed as out-of-control bush and grass fires continue to burn.
An unknown number of sheds and pieces of farm machinery, as well as hundreds of beef and dairy cattle have been destroyed, with approximately 40,000 hectares of land damaged.
About 400 firefighters are working on the blazes, with assistance from 29 aircrafts and 47 vehicles. Many of the fires were started by lightning, Victorian emergency officials said.
About 800 people reported to five relief centres and more than 400 people asked for help from the State Emergency Service.
Those in relief centres can apply for a hardship payment of about $1500.
Victorian Emergency Services Minister James Merlino said most of the fires were started by a lightning front that went through the region.
“But there are fire investigators on the ground as we speak to make a full determination of the causes of the fires,” he said.
As of 1.30am AEDT on Monday, there were still four main fires of concern. They included the Penshurst, Hawkesdale fire north-west of Warrnambool; the Gavroc fire south-west of Terang; the Terang, Cobden fire; and a smaller fire at Camperdown, east of Terang.
Earlier emergency warnings for fires at Terang, Garvoc, Camperdown and Hawkesdale had been downgraded to watch and acts.
At one point, up to 40 towns were issued with an emergency warning or watch and act alert as hot weather and strong winds caused numerous blazes to flare across farmland around Camperdown, Warrnambool and Hamilton.
Scott Page, a CFA volunteer, was called to fight the Gazette fire, and saw three houses destroyed by fire. He said the fire was moving quickly.
“It was screaming through alright,” he said.
“By the time we got there we were just flanking it off and just trying to protect a few houses around there.
“The damage was already done. There were already a couple of houses gone when we got there.
“Then the embers lit up around the third house and they had to pull out.
“It just got too hot and dangerous.”
Corangamite Shire Mayor Jo Beard told local radio that the fires took them by surprise and that a lot of houses and sheds had been lost.
“Well there’s some massive properties, dairy properties, I’ve heard of people having to bunker down in dairies, in the pits in the dairies,” she said.
Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said it was “challenging” to fight the blazes at night time.
“The challenge is you can’t get fire trucks into some areas in the darkness,” he said.
“But we were able to issue warnings that meant the community could make decisions about what they needed to do, particularly through the night.”
He said they knew the fire threat was real after 40 days without rain.
“The fact that we haven’t had death or injury in what are intense fires is somewhat successful,” he said.
“By the same token we have seen real communities impacted.”
At one point 22,000 people had lost power because of the high winds.