Day of reckoning for towns facing bushfire threat

Dayof reckoning for towns facing bushfire threat

11 January 2007

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Australia — Smalltowns around Gippsland in Victoria are under siege by fire, with blazes breakingcontainment lines and embers floating long distances, starting more spot firesin the area.

Firefighters are bracing for the worst day of the fire season as scorchingtemperatures and gusty northerly winds drive a massive bushfire towards hundredsof homes.

“This is our day of reckoning,” Bairnsdale incident controllerDennis Matthews said this morning.

The fire front has become more active this afternoon in East Gippsland, withswirling wind gusts and high temperatures making the fires almost impossible tofight.

DSE Emergency Coordination Centre spokesman Pat Groenhout said the firesituation looked like it was going to get worse before it gets better, with awind change expected this afternoon.

“The finger of fire that extends from Dargo down to Bruthen is active onboth the north and southern sides and is spotting on both sides,” he said.”It’s pretty ugly, it’s actually spotting up to about 15kms out and hasbroken containment lines. It’s going to grow quite substantially.”

Mr Groenhout was unaware whether any property had yet been lost but believesby the end of the day “there may well be substantial property losses”.

The DSE and CFA are also concerned about a spot fire near Walhalla that hadjumped the
original burnt area to the east of Walhalla and was heading towards Heyfield.

Areas of most concern to firefighters are those towns to the west of Heyfield,areas north of Bruthen through to Ensay and areas west of Bruthen through toWaterholes and Wards Crossing.

Thick smoke over the region this morning made it impossible for firefightersto use some aircraft this morning.

An eerie yellow smoke haze has descended over the town of Bruthen, trappingthe stifling heat. And there’s no relief from the gusty hot breeze, which onlydrys the mouth and sends flakes of ash drifting ominously into the street.

In the main street, the Red Cross has set up a relief centre. Opposite, atthe Bruthen General Store, owner Sue Smith says everyone is on edge.

“Everyone’s pretty toey at the moment, there’s been some spot-overs butwe’ve got three strike teams in town patrolling,” she says.

“It tends to get that little bit worse each time. You think: ‘No it’snot going to happen, it’s not going to happen’, then ‘Shit this is serious’.Everyone’s just getting really tired.”

Back in town, Pat Elson is helping staff the relief centre and is remarkablycalm.

This “day of reckoning” as fire chiefs have labelled it, has been along time coming.

“I think for us the actual emergency, getting everything ready is overbecause we’ve had six weeks to prepare,” Ms Elson said.

“We’re very well prepared and I think you’ll find everyone in Bruthenis.

“We’ve put sprinklers on the roof, we’ve got hoses all over the outsideof the house
plugged in ready to go, we’ve got buckets and mops, we’ve cleaned right aroundthe yard … we can’t do anymore.”

Ms Elson is also a realist and knows there’s a chance her home will be lost.

“We’re fully insured. If it goes it goes. As long as you’re alive Idon’t see the worry in the house burning, to be perfectly honest.”

North of Bruthen firefighters are working in suffocating conditions withheavy machinery and hand tools to cut an 80km swath through the bush.

The 30m wide firebreak will be Bruthen’s protection if the fire stormstowards the town.

Department of Sustainability and Environment sector commander Craig Bray sayscrews have to keep a careful eye on the weather and the fire, bearing down fromthe north.

They are prepared to pull out at the first sign of danger.

Among the firefighters is a small contingent of Canadian reinforcements,including division supervisor Mitch Pence, who has his work cut out mopping upburning tree stumps and hot spots.

He says firefighting is no different on the other side of the world but theforeign crew have to adapt to different weather conditions, fuel loads andterrain.

“Other than that, Australian firefighters’ way of doing business ispretty much the same as us … when it comes right down to it you get on thefire and firefighting is pretty much universal.”

In South Australia, a bushfire continued to rage in the Adelaide hills today,defying the efforts of 300 firefighters to bring it under control over the past24 hours.

The Country Fire Service said the blaze had destroyed more than 2,000hectares of heavily wooded bushland south-east of the city and was burningvigorously within containment lines.

It had also destroyed a historic building near the Mt Bold Reservoir. Theunoccupied property known as Yaroona was gutted overnight.

A CFS spokeswoman said there were no other confirmed reports of propertydamage although there were fears several sheds and livestock had also been lost.

Media reports suggested two or three homes might have been destroyed but theCFS said no one had come forward to verify those losses.

More than 80 CFS units were deployed to the area today along with waterbombing aircraft.

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