The first victim of the East Gippsland fires has been named as Mick Roberts, a great-grandfather who was found dead in his Buchan home.
The 67-year-old has been remembered as a “town legend” after his body was discovered on Wednesday morning by his nephew, Jason.
Serious concerns were raised for Mr Roberts’ whereabouts after his family failed to reach him when ferocious fires swept through more than 230,000 hectares in Victoria’s east on New Years Eve.
His niece Leah Parson issued a statement on the East Gippsland fire season 2019-2020 Facebook page on Wednesday, confirming his death.
“He’s not missing anymore … sorry but his body has been found in his house … very sad day for us to [start] the year but we’re a bloody tight family and we will never forget our mate and my beautiful Uncle Mick,” Ms Parsons wrote.
She said her uncle had been busy painting with two friends when flames surrounded his home.
“They ran into the river on the property but they couldn’t get him to go,” she told the Herald Sun.
“He said he needed to go into the shed for a minute and they never saw him again.”
Mr Roberts leaves behind a daughter, stepdaughter, stepson and great-grandchildren.
“We are devastated and numb. He was my favourite uncle … his home was a constant swinging door of people who would come to visit,” Ms Parson said.
Many locals saw Mr Roberts as “a bit of a legend in town”, she told the Herald Sun.
“He was an amazing worker and storyteller … a bit like old Jack Thompson.
“He was a real larrikin. He was brought up tough … he had lots of kids in his family.
“He never complained about anything. He was a real salt of the Earth sort of guy.
“He was always walking around in his blue overalls and work boots.
“He was very, very loved.”
Four people are still unaccounted for in East Gippsland, Premier Daniel Andrews said.
They went missing on Tuesday after more than 4000 people took shelter on Mallacoota beach as a spot fire-turned-inferno bore down on them.
Images of #Mallacoota, in #EastGippsland, Australia.
4000 people are sheltering from the fires on the beach.
BoM reports 49°C. Wind gusts 80 km/h.
As Australia suffers unprecedented #bushfires, our Govt says it's doing more than enough to tackle #ClimateChange!!! #AustralianFires pic.twitter.com/oQb9RSCBaQ
— Peter Murphy (@PeterWMurphy1) December 31, 2019
“Everything is being done to try and establish the whereabouts of these people,” Mr Andrews told reporters at the Bairnsdale incident control centre on Wednesday.
Fire threat in Victoria downgraded
After spending more than a day on emergency alert, the highest possible fire warning, the threat in East Gippsland and at Corryong in northeast Victoria had been downgraded to watch and acts.
However, the risk of flare-ups remains. Conditions are expected to worsen on Saturday and dry lightning has continued to spark new fires.
Helicopters will fly out 90 firefighters stuck at the isolated coastal holiday town of Mallacoota near the NSW border so there can be a shift change.
“We’ve got choppers taking 90 firefighters out of the Mallacoota area, they can’t be removed any other way – we’re essentially doing a shift change by the air,” Mr Andrews said.
“We’ve never done that before, getting firefighters that are essentially isolated in that Mallacoota community out and fresh teams going in.”
More than 500,000 hectares have been burnt as three fires in East Gippsland combined on Tuesday.
The blaze at Corryong has burnt 109,000 hectares and is also at risk of spreading and merging.
Confirmed property losses are 24 structures at Buchan, 19 at Sarsfield, 10 at Mallacoota and up to 15 at Cudgewa.
Power has been cut to more than 7000 properties at East Gippsland and more than 1800 in the northeast.
AusNet said it could take days to restore power because the fires were still burning and it was unsafe to attend and assess the extent of damage.
Phones remain cut across much of the region and people are struggling to communicate with loved ones and get the latest information on the fire risk.
A boil water notice was put in place for Mallacoota from Tuesday to reduce public health risks.