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Bushfires near Warrnambool continue to rage, houses lost in Victoria's west

By Melissa Brown and staff, Monday March 19, 2018 - 01:29 EDT
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The ruins of a house destroyed by fire at Terang. - ABC

Up to a dozen homes have been destroyed or damaged by bush and grass fires which continue to burn in Victoria's south-west.



An unknown number of sheds and pieces of farm machinery, as well as hundreds of beef and dairy cattle were destroyed over Saturday night and Sunday, with approximately 40,000 hectares of land damaged.

On Sunday, about 280 firefighters were battling the blazes, with assistance from 29 aircraft.

About 800 people reported to five relief centres and more than 400 people asked for help from the State Emergency Service.



Those in relief centres can apply for a hardship payment of about $1,500.

As of 1:30am AEDT on Monday, there were still four main fires of concern. They included the Penshurst, Hawkesdale fire north-west of Warrnambool; the Garvoc fire south-west of Terang; the Terang, Cobden fire; and a smaller fire at Camperdown, east of Terang.

Earlier emergency warnings for fires at Terang, Garvoc, Camperdown and Hawkesdale had been downgraded to watch and act warnings.



At one point, up to 40 towns were issued with an emergency warning or watch and act alert as hot weather and strong winds caused numerous blazes to flare across farmland around Camperdown, Warrnambool and Hamilton.

Victorian Emergency Services Minister James Merlino said most of the fires were started by a lightning front that went through the region, but investigators would make "a full determination of the causes."



'Lucky' no loss of life, authorities say

Country Fire Authority assistant chief officer for the south-west region, Rohan Luke, said crews worked hard to contain the blazes, which started about 9:00pm on Saturday.



He said conditions were extremely difficult for firefighters working in the dterark, in rough terrain, and with 90 kilometre per hour winds.

"I've had feedback from some of our members today, that are seasoned veterans, and they've said this is the hardest fire that they've had to fight, in their memory."

Mr Luke said it was fortunate there was no loss of life.

"There has been significant stock losses, property losses which are currently being assessed and obviously farm sheds," he said.

"I think at this stage we're looking at over 12 [houses lost]. It's still yet to be determined. We're not in a position to identify the locations of those."

Speaking at 5:00pm on Sunday, he said although four watch and act warnings were still in place, crews had managed to keep the fires from spreading.

"Of the four significant fires in the last two hours we've had no escapes from the edges of those fires," he said.

"So whilst they're not determined as contained, there's been really good progress today under these still extreme wind conditions."



Warrnambool police Inspector Gary Coombes said a number of road blocks were in place around Camperdown, Cobden and the Princes Highway from Garvoc to Warrnambool.

He urged people to stay away from the fire zones.

"Road blocks are there for a purpose, they're there primarily to keep people safe," he said.



'Surprise' fire moved quickly

Elle Moyle, from Gazette, north of Warrnambool, told ABC Radio Melbourne that the fire started about five kilometres north of her place about 9:30pm or 10:00pm on Saturday — and came "really close".



"We smell smoke and within 10 minutes the sky was red," she said.

Scott Page, a CFA volunteer, was called to fight the Gazette fire, and saw three houses destroyed by fire.



He said the fire was moving quickly.

"It was screaming through alright," he said.

"By the time we got there we were just flanking it off and just trying to protect a few houses around there.

"The damage was already done. There were already a couple of houses gone when we got there.

"Then the embers lit up around the third house and they had to pull out. It just got too hot and dangerous."

Corangamite Shire Mayor Jo Beard told local radio that the fires took them by surprise and that a lot of houses and sheds had been lost.

"Well there's some massive properties, dairy properties, I've heard of people having to bunker down in dairies, in the pits in the dairies," she said.

She later said it had been a tough 24 hours for the region.

"There's a lot of people hurting with the tragedies that have occurred, not only last night but today," she said.

"We've got a significant landscape of agriculture here in Corangamite Shire and unfortunately that has taken a significant beating overnight."



Emergency Management Commissioner Craig Lapsley said the fire was challenging to fight.

"The challenge is you can't get fire trucks into some areas in the darkness," he said.

"But we were able to issue warnings that meant the community could make decisions about what they needed to do, particularly through the night."

He said they knew the fire threat was real after 40 days without rain.



"The fact that we haven't had death or injury in what are intense fires is somewhat successful," he said.

"By the same token we have seen real communities impacted."

Strong winds also caused power outages in Melbourne's south-east and Mornington Peninsula, and in the state's south-west.

At one point 22,000 people on CitiPower, Powercor and United Energy networks lost electricity.

Crews are working to restore power, but authorities warned it may be several days before power was restored in the state's south-west after fire damage.


- ABC

© ABC 2018

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