As dozens of residents returned to their homes after devastating bushfires ripped through the Bunyip State Forest in Victoria’s east last weekend, the Insurance Council of Australia has declared the uncontrolled fire a ‘catastrophe’.
Specialist crews inspected 447 properties and at the latest count 29 homes have been lost and 67 other buildings destroyed in the Gippsland fires, a significant rise from the initial count of 11 homes lost.
Among those destroyed was the iconic and popular Jinks Creek Winery in Tonimbuk, owned by Andrew and Abi Clarke.
The declaration was made on Friday in consultation with Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews’ office and Emergency Management Victoria.
Seven days after the blaze triggered by dozens of lightning strikes on February 28, 2000 firefighters and 61 aircraft continue to tackle 17 active fires across the state.
The close-knit community of Tonimbuk, located within the Bunyip State Forest, has been decimated, as residents struggle to come to terms with their losses and try to initiate clean-up plans and contain livestock.
The insurance council’s general manager of communications Campbell Fuller said on Friday night that claims would be triaged to direct urgent attention to the worst-affected owners.
“It has reached a tipping point,” the council’s general manager of communications Campbell Fuller said on Friday night.
“It is an escalation criteria, it does trigger a faster response … to reduce the emotional and financial burden.”
Policy-holders with properties impacted by the fire, which has burnt about 15,000 hectares in the past week, will now be given first priority by insurers for their claims.
Emergency relief payments have been issued and the Victorian government has set in place the ‘Personal Hardship Relief Program’ with re-establishment grants of $40,700 for those who have lost everything.
In the interim, relief payments of up to $540 per adult or $270 per child are available for eligible households to put towards accommodation, food and clothing.
“Communities are returning to those fire-affected areas … it will be a very tough time for many members of those communities,” Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville told reporters at the Bunyip fire ground before the category declaration was made.
A community newsletter was issued for the Bunyip Fire Complex which gives detailed information on support services and organisations able to help in the clean-up process, including BlazeAid, which came to the help of hundreds of farmers after the Black Saturday bushfires to help repair fences.
Rex Newton returned to the twisted metal wreckage of his home on Monday, sifting through twisted metal and corrugated iron sheets trying to salvage anything he could.
“I only have the clothes on me, and it isn’t that nice a shirt,” he told the ABC on Tuesday as he held a piece of melted metal from his roof.
Mr Newton said he evacuated his home as the flames reached the other side of the building, moving at an “unbelievable” speed.
“It just ‘whoosh’, and it was there,” he said.
“I went straight through, grabbed the dog, in the car and out.”
Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said the bushfires had scorched more than 100,000 hectares of land across the state since February 28.
“We cannot afford to become complacent because the whole of the state is dry at the moment,” Mr Crisp told reporters at the Bunyip fire ground on Friday.
“The message very clearly to the community of Victoria – even though you might have seen some rain, some milder conditions, it is still very, very dry and there is still significant potential for fires in this state.”
Smoke is expected over some areas of Victoria until Sunday with an air quality warning issued for most parts of the state due to the fires.