Huge blaze threatens Grampians as bushfires claim first victim

Huge blaze threatens Grampians as bushfires claim first victim

17 January 2014

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Australia — Bushfires were raging across larges areas of south-east Australia on Friday night with one woman killed and hundreds of people evacuated from their homes.

Firefighters were bracing for the possibility of further deaths and loss of homes through the night as a potentially lethal wind change sweeps in from the south-west.

Although cooler weather was spreading across the region on Friday night bringing an end to a week of temperatures above 40C, around 70 fires were still burning in Victoria. Twelve, mostly on Melbourne’s outer fringes, were started deliberately, police said.

The worst affected area was the Grampians in north-west Victoria where a huge 30,000-hectare blaze is bearing down on the tourist town of Halls Gap. More than 100 residents evacuated, police said, but dozens remain in the town after ignoring warnings to leave their homes.

As the country faced some of the worst fire conditions since Black Saturday in 2009, a woman was found dead in her home in nearby Roses Gap. Fire investigators were sent to the scene.

The Victorian fire services commissioner, Craig Lapsley, said the threat to the area, which is about 200km west of Ballarat, would increase as a south-westerly change came through on Friday afternoon.

“There is a fair chance of losing property and even, if people are caught in the wrong space, a life could be lost,” he said.

Black Range, Mokepilly and Rhymney residents in the Grampians were told on Friday afternoon it was too dangerous to leave and they must protect themselves while immediate evacuation orders were issued for other areas.

“Firefighters have been unable to stop the fire. It is now travelling southerly from Black Range towards Mokepilly,” the warning issued for the area said. “You are now in immediate danger, act now to protect yourself. Emergency services may not be able to help you.”

People in Halls Gap, Pomonal, Dadswell Bridge, Heatherlie, Ledcourt, Bellfield, Lake Fyans and Lake Lonsdale were ordered to evacuate their homes. The Western highway was closed but residents would be able to use it to leave.

However, many decided to stay. One of those was the owner of the Halls Gap Lakeside Tourist Park, Rohan McDonald.

Mr McDonald said a plume of smoke resembling an atomic bomb blast was visible from the tourist town and that his 100 campsites and 20 cabins now lay vacant.

“They all started leaving last night when they saw the big red glow on top of the mountain,” he told AAP.

He said on Thursday afternoon he would stay and defend his property from the fires.

A series of fires in East Gippsland on the side of the state were threatening to join up and form a 500,000 hectare blaze, the authorities said.

The worst of 16 fires in South Australia was in the Adelaide Hills and people in Eden Valley were told to activate their fire plan. Two homes were destroyed.

The bushfires moved quickly during a heatwave which has seen temperatures in Victoria and South Australia reach the mid-40s with Adelaide declared the hottest city in the world on Thursday.

Ninety flying foxes died in the Adelaide botanic gardens because of the heat, the bats dropping out of the trees from heat exhaustion and dehydration. Vaccinated volunteers were collecting the carcases and the zoo at Halls Gap had to be evacuated, with giraffes among the animals that were moved.

The heatwave continued to affect trains in Melbourne. Metro Train warned commuters to expect delays and cancellations on Friday afternoon.

“People should leave the CBD as early as possible to avoid overcrowding and the heat and have a more comfortable journey,” a spokeswoman said. “We are expecting delays and cancellations across the network. I can’t say how many there will be today just yet.”

Homes were also under threat in Queensland where a large blaze moved towards the Darling Downs and sparked calls for locals to prepare to evacuate. An emergency warning was issued in Western Australia for people in the southern part of Bullsbrook, north of Perth.

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