Smoke blankets city as fire danger peaks

Smoke blankets city as fire danger peaks

24 January 2013

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Australia — Smoke has blanketed Melbourne’s CBD as the stifling heat and vicious winds that fuelled the Gippsland bushfire last week are expected to be repeated, emergency services have warned.

The Gippsland blaze has now burnt more than 60,000 hectares, destroyed houses and killed one person, and could flare again despite the close watch of firefighters.

About 80 firefighters were working on the control lines, east of Harrietville, on Thursday morning as the temperature began to climb to a forecast 37 degrees.


The blaze, which is about 1300 hectares in size, is burning about four kilometres north-east of Harrietville in the Alpine National Park. Emergency services expect the fire to hit the township and Hotham Heights within the next 24 hours.

At this stage the Country Fire Authority has advised residents to “watch and act”, meaning they should decide whether to stay and defend their properties if they have a bushfire survival plan or leave. The highest alert “emergency”, which means imminent danger, has not been activated.

Lightning strikes are believed to have ignited the fire on Monday night.

Community meetings have been arranged for Thursday. The first will be held at the Bright Community Centre on Railway Avenue at 11am, and second will be at the Mount Beauty Community Centre in Holland Street at 2pm.

Parks Victoria has closed 10 state forests and parts of the Alpine National Park until further notice. Falls Creek, Hotham Heights and Bogong state forests are among those closed.

Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley implored people to use common sense around bushfires, saying that hikers had started walks around Harrietville on Wednesday morning despite the nearby blaze and smoke being visible in the area.

The Gippsland Power football team were flown to safety on Tuesday when the bushfire ignited as they were hiking to the peak of Mount Feathertop.

Head coach Nick Stevens said 37 players and staff had to be rescued in three helicopters about 4pm.

“From the last chopper it was probably within a couple of minutes of coming through,” he said. “It was only on that last chopper ride that it got a little bit hairy because we were against the clock.

“There were only about two boys who were a little nervy about it all. The rest of the group were fine.”

Mr Lapsley said that the worst of the bushfire season could be yet to come. He said fire conditions were historically worse in February. Black Saturday, Ash Wednesday and fires in western Victoria in 1977 that killed four people and destroyed more than 100 houses all occurred in February.

“We know it’s a long haul, but we need the community to stick with us.

“We’ve got a long way to go.”

Blustery conditions combined with a high overnight temperature last Thursday helped fuel the Aberfeldy fire, which marched south because of a strong northerly wind and tore through Seaton and Glenmaggie before threatening other towns as the wind changed on Friday morning.

Mr Lapsley said the Gippsland fire burning about 200 kilometres east of Melbourne could threaten a number of communities if it broke containment lines.

“There’s been significant control lines put in to make sure we’re ready for tomorrow,” Mr Lapsley said on Wednesday.

“If that fire was to come out, it could come out in a number of spots which will threaten a number of different communities including Toongabbie, across to Heyfield again [and] Coongulla.”

Mr Lapsley said there were other areas of the state apart from Gippsland and the Alpine region, where fires are already burning, that were a concern to authorities. Western Victoria, from Horsham to Warrnambool, and central Victoria, particularly between Avoca and Castlemaine, were at risk.

He said those who had made bushfire plans needed to enact them early, as fleeing a bushfire too late was an “absolute killer”. Stan Hayhurst, 81, was found dead in his car at Seaton last Friday after the bushfire had ravaged the town. “It takes nothing for a fire to take control, we know that, we’ve seen that in the last few weeks,” Mr Lapsley said.

Victoria Police Commissioner Ken Lay said it was vital that the community kept a watchful eye on arsonists.

He said about 150 fires had been deliberately lit in the past month, and half of the 24 people charged with arson in that period were minors.

“It’s important that if children are at home by themselves that parents know what they’re doing,” Mr Lay said.


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