Arson fear as fire destroys homes

Arson fear as fire destroys homes

28 March 2013

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Australia — Up to 12 properties may have been lost after a fierce blaze tore through 1300 hectares in total fire ban conditions west of Melbourne.

“We’ve been doomed with these fires…We’re all stressed”.

Premier Denis Napthine arrived in the area and was told during a briefing at the Country Fire Authority that the grassfire at Dereel, 80 kilometres north-west of Geelong, was deliberately lit.

Residents of Mount Mercer spent an anxious night fearing a wind change. However, the fire has since been contained and it is expected residents will be able to return to assess the damage.

State Bushfire Control Centre spokesman Tony Bearzatto said the fire started about 11am on Wednesday in the Ferrers Road area of Dereel.

The CFA believes the fire is believed to have started on a roadside outside Dereel and arson squad detectives are on their way to the scene.

There are no reports of people unaccounted for and the amount of property destroyed has not been confirmed.

At least three houses and many more sheds have been destroyed on Paynes Bridge Road.

Rob and Loretta Butler returned home to their property on the same road to find a note from Grovedale and Geelong West CFA crews.

“Closed your windows and put your house out at 3.30pm,” the note read.

Mr Butler, a diabetic, said he had to be taken to hospital when his blood sugar levels got low as the fire raged.

“I was in the firestorm. We were caught down the road and I couldn’t get out,” he said.

“I shit myself. We were scared as bloody hell.”

He said there were about five permanent residents on the road and several holiday homes. Some had lost their houses.

“These are all our friends.”

More than 70 trucks, 300 firefighters and three aircraft were brought in to help control the blaze. Four firefighters were injured when their truck caught fire after hitting a tree. Police said another fighterfighter had been injured this morning.

CFA chief officer Euan Ferguson said the volunteers could not see properly due to the thick smoke, but thought quickly to save their lives.

“There’s been reports of up to 12 properties affected,” Mr Bearzatto told The Ballarat Courier. “They’re unconfirmed at this stage.

“At the moment the fire activity has calmed down and they’re continuing to consolidate their control lines.
“Hopefully the fire activity will calm down throughout the night.

“We’ll continue to provide asset protection to those areas, particularly Mount Mercer.”

At Rokewood, Dr Napthine warned Victorians to stay vigilant about the risk of fire, despite it being relatively late in the year.

“What we’re had is a very dry summer, and the grass is just tinder dry,” he said.

“We’re still prone to fire and people need to be aware of that.”

Dr Napthine said arson was disgraceful behaviour and those responsible would be held accountable.

“They need to have a good hard look at themselves,” he said.

The premier said locals had long held concerns about mobile phone reception in the area that had been magnified during the bushfire. He said the government would improve reception near Dereel.

Dereel CFA captain Darryn Hill said problems with reception forced locals to rely on home phones for emergency warnings.

He said it was tragic some homes had been lost, but it could have been worse.

“We’re just very lucky we’ve saved the township,” he said.

There were few stock losses, and the CFA estimates that about 10 buildings have been lost. It is unclear how many of those were houses.

Golden Plains shire mayor Councillor Jenny Blake said residents would be given the support they needed to recover.

She was speaking at a community meeting in the Dereel hall on Thursday morning.

“This is just the most dramatic day for many of you in the room,” she said.

“It was a bad day. It was a difficult day.”

She urged neighbours to look after each other.

Locals raised concerns about getting access to their houses, and caring for pets and livestock that remained at their properties.

While some at the meeting did not know what had happened to their properties, other locals were able to tell them which houses had been destroyed.

Frank and Lisa Degroot lost their holiday house on Paynes Bridge Road.

Mr Degroot had built the house with his father 10 years ago and learnt it had been destroyed when he saw in engulfed in flames on the news last night.

He had to call relatives to tell them he was safe with his family in Geelong.

“The water tank is still there, it’s ripped through the house but the tank is still there,” Mr Degroot said.

“The main part now is that the community comes together.”

The house had recently been put on the market, but was insured.

Mr Degroot said he was most relieved when he heard his neighbours, the Butlers, were safe.

He said there was little of sentimental value in the house, although he and his father were saddened to lose the property they had built.

“The kids were upset yesterday, they lost a few of their toys in the house.”

Ms Degroot said it had been strange watching her property burn on television.

“You got the shakes and that sort of thing to see it.”

On Wednesday night, as many as 30 people attended a relief centre at Linton.

CFA operations manager Gerry Verdoorn said early use of helicopters had made all the difference in fighting the fire.

The Metropolitan Fire Brigade provided support fighting the blaze by covering Geelong, freeing up CFA resources

The flames burnt within metres of Doug Braddy’s house and dog kennel business in Dereel.

“We heard a big roar and it just went straight through the hill,” he said.

“I knew how fast it would go. And it went.”

Mr Braddy said the flames started near Ferrers Road and within an hour had burnt through the adjoining gully that ran through his property.

Kylie Walton, from the Wurrook Merino stud near Rokewood, said the Dereel fire burnt part of her 2800-hectare sheep farm and came within 500 metres of her house on Wurrook Road.

She said she had been scared and the sky had been full of smoke and helicopters all afternoon.

Her husband, Paul, had spent the afternoon battling the flames and moving stock but they were in constant phone contact.

Initially the blaze was moving south, from Dereel towards Rokewood and Corindhap, coming across her farm, but at 4.30pm, CFA firefighters told her the fire had changed direction and was moving north-east, away from her farm.

“No one seems to be totally sure at the moment what has been burnt,” she said.

“At the back of our property is Enfield state forest, with a lot of forest and scrub.

“If the wind changes now and goes towards Ballarat it’s going to hit that forest big time.

“They’re just frantically trying to get it out,” she said of the firefighters.

A CFA spokeswoman said winds in the afternoon could cause the blaze to flare again.

She said it was unclear how many properties had been destroyed because the CFA had not assessed the damage.

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