In the Ovens Valley, the popular tourist towns of Bright and Harrietville were exposed to ember attacks overnight, downwind from a huge bushfire on Mount Buffalo, which merged with the nearby Abbeyard fire to cover an area of over 100,000 hectares.
A small crew of firefighters remained on the mountain to protect the Mount Buffalo chalet, built in 1910 by the Victorian Government, and listed in the Victorian Heritage Register for its architectural, historical and social significance.
Speaking at 5.30 on a drizzly Melbourne afternoon, Mr Andrews said that the next four or five hours would be the “most challenging time”.
Authorities were most concerned about fires on Mount Buffalo and in the East Gippsland towns of Bruthen and Cann River, where a fire column was spotted by 5.30pm.
With months of dangerous fire conditions remaining, emergency services are bracing for a scenario in which the Gippsland, Alpine and Corryong fires merge with the Tumbarumba fire in NSW to create a mega-blaze burning millions of hectares.
“These fires are going to go for some weeks – and it’s going to take significant rainfall to put them out,” Ovens District deputy incident controller Jarrod Hayse said.
While the cross-state megablazes finally merged late Friday, Tumbarumba’s Rural Fire Service captain Ian Pratt said the two fires joining “doesn’t make a whole lot of difference” to his team except to make access more difficult
“We’ve still got to cover the fire front,” Mr Pratt said.
The fires were burning in both eucalypt and pine forest and across farmland nearer Tooma. At least one of the fires was probably creating its own weather. The fire burning towards Tooma was “raging,” Mr Pratt said.
“It would be nice to put aircraft on it, but we don’t have any available”.
Mr Andrews was also predicting a continued expansion of the fire fronts. “With so much fire in the landscape over the next few weeks we’re going to continue to see fires getting a run on, with fires flaring up for weeks to come,” he said.
“Even with the better weather, even with the worst of these conditions perhaps having
passed us all, certainly by tomorrow morning they will have passed through … you need to be vigilant – all of us need to be vigilant,” Mr Andrews said.
“This is a long way from over.”
Remarkably, an area north of Bairnsdale was facing the possibility of flash flooding on Friday night, with up to 15 millimetres of rain set to fall in an hour, Emergency Services Commissioner Andrew Crisp said.
Mr Hayse, who is managing the Abbeyard and Mount Buffalo fires in the Alpine region, said the greatest risk on Friday was a south-westerly wind change forecast for the evening that could send ember threats into towns such as Bright, Harrietville, Porepunkah and Whorouly South.
Harrietville and Wandiligong were nearly completely evacuated on Friday.
The Premier warned those who chose to stay couldn’t depend on emergency services.
“If your plan relies on a CFA truck being at your front gate and you receive a warning, then you need to go,” Mr Andrews said.
Mr Hayse said the fires were already in “close proximity” to rural properties in the regions of Nug Nug, Carboor and Lake Buffalo.
“However under these conditions we can see fires move very quickly,” he said.
“If people want to remain safe, they should leave early.”
The changeable weather is also stirring up the fires in NSW. Speaking at RFS headquarters on Friday afternoon, commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said two new fire ignition points could have been started by lightning.
“We’ve had the new fire in the Blue Mountains, north of Falkenbridge. There’s aircraft working. It’s remote, difficult to get access to.
“There one of our large aircraft, a large tanker, is working to limit its spread and hopefully we will get through the more difficult conditions throughout the evening before that becomes problematic.”
Noel Towell is State Political Editor for The Age
Zach is a reporter at The Age. Got a story? Email me at email@example.com
Michael Bachelard is The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s investigations editor. He has worked in Canberra, Melbourne and Jakarta as Indonesia correspondent. He has written two books and won multiple awards for journalism, including the Gold Walkley in 2017.
Michael is a reporter for The Age.