Fire at Wilsons Promontory tackled from air by firefighters

Fire at Wilsons Promontory tackled from air by firefighters

19 February 2009

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Australia — The bushfire death toll has climbed to 208, as a blaze at Wilsons Prom claimed a quarter of the land in thick bushland.

Police have just revised the toll up from 201 to 208.

The official number of people killed in Marysville was increased from 39 to 45, making it the town with the highest toll.

The five worst hit towns have been Marysville (45), Strathewen (42), Kinglake (37), St Andrews (22) and Steels Creek (10).

Meanwhile, the Wilsons Promontory National Park fire has grown to more than 13,000ha in size, but light winds have allowed firefighters time to strengthen containment lines around the blaze.

The fire has burnt through more than a quarter of Wilsons Promontory and is still out of control in thick bushland.

Firefighters are unable to access the fire so it can be fought only by using one air crane and two smaller water bombers.

Department of Sustainability and Environment spokeswoman Rachel Dawkins said the fire was burning 7.5km south and southeast of the park entrance.

“It’s a lot quieter out there today so hopefully firefighters have been able to get control lines in and stop the fire from spreading,” she said.

“This is a wind driven fire and the wind has been causing problems.  If it gets up it can be really erratic.”

She said the erratic winds, coupled with the inaccessible terrain, was the reason ground crews had not been able to fight the fire directly and were instead relying on water bombing aircraft.

Ms Dawkins said preparations were in place for any change in the weather, with potentially volatile conditions expected on Sunday and Monday.

Ms Dawkins said water bombing aircraft were working to stop the fire spreading north of Five Mile Rd.  Yanakie and Tidal River are not under threat but Yanakie residents have been warned to expect smoke.

Parks Victoria Regional Manager Chris Rose said authorities were working hard to try and ensure the park would be open for the upcoming Labour Day long weekend.

“Parks Victoria has only cancelled bookings on the Prom up to the Labour Day long weekend and if it is safe to do so, we intend to re-open the Park in time for that weekend,” he said.

“While all of the Park may not be accessible, we hope to be able to re-open Tidal River and other popular visitor areas as soon as possible.”

The Wilsons Promontory blaze is one of five that firefighters are still trying to get on top of ahead of warmer and windy conditions forecast for Monday.

Firefighters are also throwing a lot of their resources around the East Kilmore-Murrindindi Complex fire – the state’s largest blaze – which is also threatening water catchments.

Firefighters are also going to great lengths to contain the fire burning between Healesville and Warburton before Sunday’s stronger wind.

“We are finalising a containment line in difficult, steep country that will run for 70km and, from what I understand, we have 20km to go,” Mr Ord said.

“If it did jump a containment line then it could head down the valley where there are some small municipalities.

“We will make the most of the calmer weather of the next couple of days to try to make sure this doesn’t happen.”

DSE spokesman Stuart Ord said about one-third of resources were placed in that area and firefighters were trying to establish containment lines before the warmer weather.

Possible dry lightning strikes through the northwest of the state forecast for today were also posing a concern.

Nine fire behaviour experts arrived from Canada yesterday to help in the battle.

“If the fire jumps containment lines, they will predict what it will do and map out how we should fight it,” Mr Ord explained.

The Canadians brought the number of international fire fighters to 121, with 60 in from the US and 52 New Zealanders.

Fire crews also were working hard to contain the Bunyip and Churchill-Jeeralang fires, and it was hoped both would be contained today.

Thermal imagery is being used in Gippsland to detect peat fires burning underground.

Mr Ord said the north of the state was still very dry and there were fears the lightning could cause fresh outbreaks of fire.

Police resources in the bushfire recovery effort will be strengthened with the arrival of 150 NSW police officers.

The members will support Victoria Police officers in the bushfire-affected areas of Marysville, Whittlesea and Kinglake.

They will help in manning road blocks, traffic duties and supporting local police in conducting proactive patrols.

On Sunday thousands of Victorians will gather in Melbourne and a string of bushfire-scorched townships as part of anational day of mourning for those killed.

Buckingham Palace has also confirmedPrincess Anne will attend a service in Melbourne on Sunday and will also tour fire-ravaged towns.

Thedeath toll from the devastating fires, which began on February 7, stands at 208 and authorities do not expect this figure to rise much higher.

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