Nervous wait at Buller as three fire fronts close in

Nervous wait at Buller as three fire frontsclose in 

20 December 2006

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Australia — The supermarket at Mount Buller is open for now, but that couldall change. Everything could change, maybe today, maybe tomorrow.

The ski resort is at the apex of an encroaching triangle of bushfires. On themountain they have been preparing for this moment for two weeks, when all threefire fronts get close, when the weather turns bad again.

But the supermarket is still open, and there is a message on the window:”We Want Snow” written in spray paint. Snow would keep the fires away.But they barely got any through the winter — the ski season was poor — andthey are not going to get any now.

“I’m going to sue God for this, I swear,” supermarket managerCarole Renwick said. She’s also No. 2 at the Mount Buller CFA. Her crew havebeen joined by 70 other firefighters from NSW and throughout Victoria —Timboon, Ballarat — to protect the mountain which, should it burn up, wouldmark the severest escalation of the Great Divide bushfire crisis to date.

There’s 30 residents at Buller, lodge owners and ski-field staff mainly. Theresort has been sprayed with foam fire retardant and much of the vegetation hasbeen cleared. There are emergency plans. Fire crews are ready to use the snowguns to spray water at buildings. One of the ski-field hotels has beendesignated a disaster centre.

If worst comes to worst, residents will flee up the mountain where there arefewer trees.

“No one up here has had to go through anything like this before,”the Alpine Resort Management Board’s chief, Philip Nunn, said. “There’snever been bushfires up here, not in living memory. But everyone is very awareof the situation we face.”

Mount Buffalo lost a building early in the bushfire’s ascendancy. A touristattraction, Craig’s Hut, built on the western edge of Mount Buller for TheMan From Snowy River movie, was razed last week.

There are no flames visible from Mount Buller, not by day. A thick pall ofsmoke envelopes the village, and visibility is low. But at night, from thesummit, the fires glow around three sides of the mountain. “They look likered Christmas lights,” Mr Nunn said.

The problem up here will be access. There is only one road up. If fires crossit during hotter weather and stronger winds this week, those up the top arestranded. The slopes around the road are very steep and heavily wooded, whichmakes them prone to burn quickly.

At the Mount Buller supermarket, Ms Renwick is hoping it might be over byChristmas. But she knows it probably won’t be, that the stress and the waitingwill stretch into the New Year. She also knows she has got to get through thenext few days first.

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