Victoria, Australia — More than 700 tourists were today evacuated from one of the nation’s premier ski resorts after a fire burning out of control in Victoria crossed the border into NSW.
The visitors were asked to leave the resort town of Thredbo early this afternoon after the Rural Fire Service (RFS) warned it could come under threat within 24 hours.
The immediate danger eased later in the day, however, as storms drove down temperatures and raised humidity, RFS spokeswoman Rebel Talbert said.
“At this stage the fire is still progressing towards the east (towards Thredbo) but at a much slower rate,” Ms Talbert said.
The fire was burning 12km from Thredbo but was no longer expected to get as close as 7km to the town during the night, as earlier predicted, she said.
Fire crews will still remain in Thredbo on standby overnight, although the difficulty of the terrain will prevent any direct firefighting.
The RFS would also monitor any new small fires that might break out from lightning strikes during the storms.
The main blaze was still expected to reach the area around Thredbo over the coming days, with the mercury tipped to rise to 35 degrees tomorrow, authorities said.
The forecast south-easterly wind would drive the blaze into the area surrounding Thredbo but should spare it a direct attack.
The police air wing, Polair, was brought in to conduct sweeps to look for campers or bushwalkers in Kosciuszko National Park, parts of which are now closed.
Campsites at Geehi and Swampy creek were evacuated and closed, and visitors to the area were sent to an evacuation centre in the town of Jindabyne.
Many decided not to register at Memorial Town Hall, instead opting to cut short their holidays.
Thredbo Resort spokeswoman Susie Diver said the evacuation had been orderly and calm.
Residents have been allowed to stay and met with firefighters this afternoon to plan for the onslaught.
Most intended to remain and protect their properties, Ms Talbert said.
“All the residents are very well prepared for the onset of fire should that happen tomorrow or Friday,” she said.
Six firefighting aircraft, an air crane and fire crews have been sent to dump water on the fire in the Snowy Mountains on the border of NSW and Victoria.
Kosciuszko National Park is closed south of the Snowy Mountains Highway and east of Cabramurra/Khancoban Road and the Alpine Way is closed from Dead Horse Gap toKhancoban.
“The news wasn’t good,” said Neil McDonaugh, who runs the River Inn Resort. “I wasn’t here during the 2003 fires but the police told us this one could be 10 times worse than 2003.”
The 2003 fire destroyed historic houses in the area and came within metres of the resorts.
“All the guests have been relocated, the residents and staff have not been told to leave yet,” Mr McDonaugh said.
“I will tell my wife to leave, but I’ll stay here. I think most of the residents will stay … a couple of hundred residents. We’ve been through tough times before and survived. We’ve had the 2003 fire and the landslide.
“They told us at the meeting that there is nothing between the fire and Thredbo.”
The bushfire heading towards the town has already burned thousands of hectares of land around the NSW/Victoria border and is 12 kilometres away at the moment.
Oddly, there is a light drizzle over Thredbo at the moment, which gave some residents a false sense of security, Mr McDonaugh said.
Winds are pushing the fire closer and the slight rain may turn into a thunderstorm, which means lightning could ignite more fires.
NSW Rural Fire Service spokeswoman Ailish Pope said: “The fire has now burned approximately 1400 hectares in Victoria and 3200 hectares in NSW.
“We have crews from both the RFS and National Parks on the ground fighting the fire, and they are being assisted by six aircraft and an air-crane helicopter.
“It’s going to a long week and we’re expecting even more extreme conditions on Saturday.”
The fire is burning east and south of the Alpine Way, west of Thredbo, and campsites at Geehi and Swampy Creek have been evacuated.
A spokeswoman for Thredbo, Susie Diver, said most residents were “fairly well-briefed on fire evacuation procedures”, having gone through the 2003 drama.
An evacuation centre has been set up at the Jindabyne Memorial Hall, opposite the Lake Jindabyne Hotel.
A NSW Police statement says everyone leaving the Kosciuszko National Park area should call into the centre and register with officials.
“This is so officials will have an accurate list of who has left the park, and in case of inquiries from concerned family and friends,” the statement says.
People wanting information should phone the Snowy Fire Information Line, 1800 268 747.
A spokesman for the Perisher region said they had not yet been advised to vacate the area.
The Alpine Way is now closed to all traffic aside from residents and emergency personnel and Polair is being brought in to help with sweeps over the national park to ensure there are no campers or bushwalkers in the area.
Deputy Prime Minister Mark Vaile said he had been briefed about the threat to Thredbo and its evacuation plans.
“There is a fire front moving in on Thredbo,” Mr Vaile told reporters in Queanbeyan today.
“Thredbo, I understand, is either going to be or is in the process of being evacuated and obviously our thoughts and prayers are with the residents of Thredbo as they move out.
“The volunteer bush fire brigade and the agencies that are fighting this fire are hopefully able to save all the homes in Thredbo,” he said.
Asked if he believed there were enough resources on the ground to save the village, Mr Vaile said: “I have an enormous amount of confidence in the volunteer fire fighting organisations, not just here in NSW but across Australia.
“I am sure that enough resources are being deployed down into the mountains around Thredbo to be able to fight the fire front that’s coming through there,” he said.
Thieves strip firefighting vehicle
Meanwhile, it has emerged that thieves stripped a Gippsland firefighting vehicle of vital communications equipment over the weekend while bushfire gripped the region.
Two communication radios, a vehicle battery, tools and other equipment were stolen from a Country Fire Authority (CFA) vehicle at Maffra fire station between 3pm last Friday and 9am on Sunday.
The thieves entered through a locked garage and rifled through the CFA four-wheel-drive, taking equipment valued at $4000.
“The fact that someone has deliberately done that at this time is extremely disheartening,” CFA acting operations manager region 10, Allan Rankin, said.
“I’d like to think people realise that doing what they’ve done, they are having an impact on the local brigade’s ability to provide the range of services we do.”
Mr Rankin said the marked CFA vehicle had been funded by community support over the years.
He said new radio equipment was expected to arrive by tomorrow.
Bushfire crisis worst ever: Bracks
Victoria is in the grip of one of the worst bushfire crises in the state’s history, Premier Steve Bracks has warned.
The Premier has cut short his holiday and returned to work after a fire in north-east Victoria cut transmission lines yesterday and sparked blackouts across the state.
Today Mr Bracks attended a briefing with Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin and Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Christine Nixon.
The meeting was told the next three days were critical and conditions were expected to be even worse on Saturday than they were yesterday, when eight houses were lost and temperatures soared into the 40s, Mr Bracks said.
“When I came back in this morning and had the briefing and learned that Saturday was going to be worse than yesterday, it just sends shivers up your spine because we all saw how bad yesterday was,” he said.
“I think it will go down as one of our worst bushfire episodes in Victoria ever, and that’s saying something in the state that had the 1939 fires, the 1983 fires and even the 2002/03 fires.
“This is the worst bushfire conditions we have ever had in Victoria’s history because it is going to go on and it is going to get worse.
“We have never encountered this in Victoria before.
“This is 48 days … of fire activity and 1 million hectares which have been burnt, and of course we are bracing ourselves for some very, very tough conditions.”
Eight homes were lost last night and more are expected to burn today as scorching temperatures and northerly winds continue to fan blazes threatening small Victorian communities near Benalla and in East Gippsland.
Residents in Burders Road, north-east of Toombullup, are under immediate attack from the fire front.
Ember attack is expected around Stringybark Creek Road and Graveyard Road, north-west of Tolmie, while residents of Toombullup, Tolmie, Archerton and areas north of Toombullup can expect embers and spot fires in coming hours.
In Tolmie, the Country Fire Authority is sending in five new crews to battle the blaze.
Firefighters are hoping to build a 60-metre break around the fire to stop it from moving closer to Mansfield, about 25 kilometres away.
The same fire cut the main electricity inter-connector between Victoria and NSW, plunging hundreds of thousands of houses into darkness and affecting hundreds of traffic signals and suburban train services.
In the far east, the Great Divide South fire has expanded east towards the Great Alpine Road, threatening the tiny mountain communities of Brookville, Doctors Flat and Swifts Creek, near Omeo.
A fire at Hermit Mountain, south-east of Corryong in the Upper Murray Valley, has grown to 840 hectares and remains out of control.
DSE emergency control centre spokesman Pat Groenhout said the Tatong fire, which razed seven homes in Toombullup, had grown overnight by half and was now burning 27,000 hectares.
He said the fire was still “very close” to homes and it was possible more would be lost.
Steiglitz blaze grows
A fire started by lightning in the Brisbane Ranges, about 60 kilometres west of Melbourne, grew rapidly last night.
The blaze, near the township of Steiglitz, has spread to 250 hectares. One home was lost. The CFA is holding a meeting for residents in nearby Anakie this morning.
“Crews out there are focusing on getting containment lines around that this morning,” Mr Groenhout said No relief in sight
With high temperatures expected through to the weekend, Mr Groenhout said firefighters would not see any relief.
“We’ve got no break in sight at all . . . someone said yesterday it’s like walking around in a wet blanket.”
Three other fires were started by lightning last night at Benambra, the Otways and Wulgulmerang in East Gippsland.
The East Gippsland fire breached containment lines again yesterday around Ensay and is continuing to put pressure on small communities in the area.
“We’re expecting some fairly erratic winds through there this morning, which is really going to test us,” Mr Groenhout said.
“The problem with East Gippsland is [that] we have new ignitions out there and that fire, we’re having a lot of trouble getting it contained, so it will continue to cause problems.”
The Hermit Mountain fire near the NSW border, started by lightning on January 12, grew substantially last night and has now spread into NSW.
Mr Groenhout said 100 firefighters from the United States were expected early next week to help relieve many of the volunteers who had worked without break over the Christmas period.
Weather bureau senior forecaster Dean Stewart said hot temperatures were expected throughout the week.
In fire areas today, temperatures in the mid to high 30s are predicted with 20-30kmh northerly winds this morning dropping to 10-15kmh in the afternoon.
Mr Stewart said there would be isolated thunderstorms that might bring some rain but it was too hard to tell whether this would fall over fire affected areas.
He said winds would increase again late on Friday and into Saturday when temperatures were expected to rise close to 40 degrees.