Bushfires are threatening dozens of communities in Victoria’s east and north-east, as a wind change sweeping the state intensifies the threat and firefighters pull back from fire fronts to focus on saving lives.
Authorities are using Army helicopters to get people out of the East Gippsland town of Omeo, after bushfire hit the community about 4:00pm.
Resident Brian Hadden said it went “red and black” as the main fire front hit, before helicopter evacuations began.
“Where I am at the Omeo Recreation Reserve, there is about six or seven big choppers, army and police,” he told ABC Gippsland.
“I can see lots of wind and hell of a lot of smoke. It’s been a hell of a day and a night.”
Authorities believe several homes have been destroyed across East Gippsland, where most remote communities have been under threat from bushfires.
Ollie Pearce at the Omeo Ski Hire shop told ABC Gippsland he could see flames in the hills and a wind change was pushing the fire in the town’s direction.
“And also a grassfire as well … it’s not looking good,” he said.
Several communities across Victoria’s Alpine region and north-east have also been under threat, as thunderstorms caused by the fires fuel destructive winds.
CFA Gippsland incident controller Andy Gillham said a south-westerly wind change moving across the region “just basically puts different communities under threat”.
About 50 firefighters from the United States are preparing to join the battle against the East Gippsland bushfires, which authorities estimate have torn through more than 700,000 hectares of land.
Deputy chief fire officer Beth Roberts said authorities were working to juggle both firefighting and relief as they responded to the “unprecedented” bushfire emergency across East Gippsland.
“While we are absolutely concentrating on response, it is important for us to be looking at immediate relief and recovery,” she said.
Late this afternoon, cooler temperatures reached East Gippsland. It dropped to 17 degrees Celsius at Mount Nowa Nowa and 20C at Orbost, a dramatic drop from 40C earlier in the day.
Sandy Beltrame from the Omeo Caravan Park said at least 150 people were sheltering at the local recreation reserve as she and other residents prepared to defend their homes.
“How am I feeling at the moment? I’ve got my big girl pants on, and my big girl shirt over the top of it and a broad brim hat and lots of hoses ready to go,” she said.
Authorities had been warning communities across Victoria’s declared disaster zone to evacuate the area before today, amid fears the extreme weather would make bushfires unstoppable.
This afternoon, five evacuation notices and more than a dozen emergency warnings were in place in the state’s east and north-east.
Mr Gillham said residents at Cann River, who were urged to evacuate this week, were “essentially isolated” as fire moved towards them from the east.
“We have been in there with the Australian Defence Force aircraft and we have also conveyed people out of Cann River but it is essentially an isolated community, the road is completely blocked by fallen trees,” he told ABC Gippsland.
ABC Radio Melbourne caller Graham said sky had turned red there, and he and other residents were waiting to fight fires as the area came under ember attack.
“It’s been completely blacked out and red again. But all we can see near us is a few flare-ups,” he said.
Don’t think i’ve quite seen anything like this before pic.twitter.com/wTVFibcyn5
— Jon Passantino (@passantino) January 4, 2020
Days after Mallacoota was cut off by bushfires, prompting the evacuation of more than 900 people by sea, the sky has turned black once again.
The town was devastated by fire on New Year’s Eve. Mallacoota resident Sean Rainey said gusty winds were now pushing a fire, burning on the other side of the lake, to the south.
“I guess a whole lot of smoke has gone up and covered the sky,” he said.
“It took about 15 minutes to go from pretty much deep yellow to blood red and pretty much black.
“You know there’s lots of embers falling out of the sky, but they’re pretty much burnt up and, yeah, we’re told … it is pretty safe.”
Amy Houghton, who is waiting to be evacuated from Mallacoota along with her two-year-old son and her 92-year-old grandmother, said air evacuations planned for Saturday afternoon had been cancelled due to the smoke.
Erin Lehman, who is also waiting to be evacuated along with her three children, said the situation was still “a bit scary” as the sky moved from darkness to orange and back to darkness.
“The smoke’s horrendous and that’s my concern with my kids,” she said.
“What’s going to be the long term effects on their health being exposed to all this smoke for extended periods of time.
“It’s quite difficult trying to keep a mask on a four-year-old and a two-year-old.”
Meanwhile, authorities said a relief centre at Sale, west of the fires, was beginning to overflow and encouraged those who could to drive further west to the Latrobe Valley town of Morwell.
The huge blaze near Corryong destroyed several homes this week and prompted a mass-evacuation of communities in north-east Victoria. Many people moved to the bigger town centres of Tallangatta, Wangaratta and Wodonga.
On Saturday afternoon, ADF members arrived at the Tallangatta evacuation centre to begin taking people to Wodonga.
Authorities said forecast “firestorm conditions which may not be survivable” were playing out, with a “significant” increase in fire activity.
CFA regional controller Adrian Gutsche told ABC Goulburn Murray that the Corryong blaze was sending embers towards Tintaldra and Towong.
“The fire has also broken away to around that Lucyvale/Berringama area, so it’s putting a lot of pressure there on the Murray Valley Highway and so has effectively isolated Corryong again,” he said.
Corryong was cut off during the New Year’s Eve fires, but convoys of people got out during the week.
Mr Gutsche said the Green Valley fire across the border and associated pyro-cumulus clouds were creating their own weather, including lightning.
He said that “very erratic fire behaviour” was what emergency services had been preparing for.
Cooler temperatures which swept East Gippsland are taking longer to reach the north-east, with Albury still sitting at 41C at 6:00pm.
The Murray Valley Highway has been closed because of the risk of it being hit by fire.
A state ablaze
Further south, a new blaze near Euroa, south-west of Wangaratta, has been slowed by firefighters as it travels towards the Hume Freeway.
A large air tanker has dropped fire retardant on the Euroa service centre, which sits in the path of the fire.
Shortly after 5:00pm, the CFA said while the spread of the fire had been slowed, that could change at any time.
The freeway is one of Victoria’s biggest roads, linking Melbourne to the north-east of the state and on to NSW and Canberra.
Authorities are warning residents near Euroa to leave now before it becomes too dangerous, as the freeway could soon become impacted.
Residents around the state’s Alpine National Park, known for its snowfields during the winter, were yesterday urged to get out while they still could.
Multiple out-of-control fires are burning near the Bright, Mount Buffalo, Mount Buller and Mount Beauty areas.
Omeo, Vic. Right now! pic.twitter.com/XWhyDNu2Qh
— Nuggy25 (@nuggy25) January 4, 2020
A truck driver was killed in a single-vehicle crash in Dederang, in the Alpine Shire, about 8:40am.
Police said the truck was travelling along the Kiewa Valley Highway and left the road, clipping trees.
Many of those evacuating the area are using the highway, and one lane of traffic is closed after the fatal crash.
Several bushfire-affected communities have already lost power and phone connections and authorities have warned generators in Mallacoota and Omeo are running out of power.
Ausnet said fuel they had hoped would reach the East Gippsland towns had not arrived, and it was estimated the generators had between 12 and 36 hours of power left.