Fire front: Smoke blankets Victoria and southern New South Wales.Picture: NASA
A massive bushfire raging in Victoria’s high country could develop a 100kmfire front, the Premier Steve Bracks warned today.
As firefighters race against the clock to build containment lines around thefires before a forecast weather fans the flames, Mr Bracks said the threat wasthe worst since the 1939 Black Friday fires.
“That could mean something close to a 100km fire front affectingone-fifth of the state,” Mr Bracks said.
Strong northerly winds are expected to send the fire south in a broad fronttomorrow, with residents again urged to make the decision now to fight or flee.
Among developments today:
Two dozen schools closed ahead of the danger;
The biggest single fire 10km west of Abbeyard in state forest had burnt out almost 73,000ha;
Several fires merged to become the Mt Terrible fire over about 9000ha;
At least 28 communities in the Alpine and Gippsland districts were under threat or on high alert including townships in the Mansfield, Wangaratta, Ovens and Bairnsdale districts.
Police warned they could be forced to close the Princes Highway Townships under immediate risk included Kevington, Gaffneys Creek, Knockwood, A1 Mine Settlement, Cheshunt, Rose River, Tolmie and Whitfield are facing immediate risk.
Army tankers and bulldozers are heading to fire-affected areas as 18 blazesburn out of control in the alpine region, with more than 150,000ha now razed.
Lightning strikes on Friday triggered up to 50 fires, but many have nowmerged, as authorities predict a possible mega fire spread over 600,000ha thisweekend.
Up to 200 tankers in 40 strike teams are being assembled in Gippsland inpreparation for tomorrow’s horror weather forecast of up to 40C and northerlywinds.
In all, 2000 firefighters are being supported by 30 aircraft, 350 tankers and88 bulldozers.
By the weekend an estimated 2700 personnel will be used to protect threatenedtowns.
Forty New Zealand firefighters arrived in Melbourne last night and will be sentto fight fires in Jamieson today, while five strike teams from NSW will arrivelater today.
Today the weather bureau issued a fresh extreme fire danger warning for theMallee region, and predicted Melbourne could become shrouded in smoke as windschanged direction.
Other parts of the state area already blanketed with smoke.
In areas under threat, authorites continued to stress the importance ofhaving a fire plan for leaving early or staying to fight fires.
My message is clear: decide now whether you will stay or go, and keep tothe plan, the Premier Stetve Bracks said today.
He also urged visitors to avoid fire-affected areas, including Licola, Dargo,Woodspoint, Whitfield, Abbyard, Rose River and the Alpine National Park.
State Emergency Services Minister Bob Cameron urged employers to ensurevolunteers were allowed time off to fight the fires in the north-east andGippsland regions.
The men and women of our fire brigades have worked tirelessly these past fewdays, under extraordinary conditions, he said.
They are on the front line in very isolated, rugged country, battling blazesspreading through hundreds of thousands of hectares.
Prime Minister John Howard yesterday pledged the Commonwealth would do all itcould to help Victoria through the bushfires.
“The situation in Victoria is very serious indeed,” Mr Howard said.
“Earlier today I rang the Premier, Mr Bracks, and offered any additionalCommonwealth assistance that Victoria might stand in need of.
“I want the people of Victoria to know that we will provide anyadditional assistance that the Premier needs.”
Indi MP Sophie Mirabella, whose electorate spans much of the fire area, saidassistance would include army tankers to supply fuel for water tankers andbulldozers in Mansfield and Whitfield.
Fire at Mt Darling yesterday joined with the Mt Cynthia fire, destroying morethan 27,000ha of national park.
But the biggest blaze is now the Ovens fire, 10km west of Abbeyard, wheremore than 70,000ha of state forest has been destroyed.
Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Stuart Ord said theblazes had been getting bigger with many already joining up.
“There’s a lot of work going on in terms of putting control lines inaround private property,” Mr Ord said.
He said conditions would start to get worse this afternoon when the windstarted to swing around to the north.
A strike team will be stationed at Mt Buller today as the fire neared.
About 200 students were evacuated from Geelong Grammar’s Timbertop campus onTuesday.
Mr Ord said residents in towns including Matlock, Woods Point, Licola andDargo should prepare for the fire threat and towns further south in Gippslandshould be ready ahead of Sunday.
“The fire danger is going to be very high to extreme and is going tolead to very erratic and difficult firefighting conditions,” he said.
CFA state duty officer Greg Leach said residents in Whitfield, Kevington,Jamieson, the A1 Mine Settlement, and Gaffney’s Creek had worked hard to savetheir homes.
“This fire is burning with such ferocity the prevailing weatherconditions have had no impact,” Mr Leach said.
“They are burning whichever way the wind’s blowing.”
The Bureau of Meteorology has forecast temperatures of up to 40C on Saturdayin the areas where the fires were raging.