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Gell River fire conditions expected to ease overnight as cool change sweeps Tasmania

Carla Howarth, Ellen Coulter and Catherine Grant, Saturday January 5, 2019 - 00:36 EDT
ABC licensed image
A cool change is sweeping through Tasmania, but the smoke still blankets the south. - ABC licensed

A cool change sweeping up through Tasmania has helped ease conditions for fire crews tackling 17 blazes around the state.



The biggest fire is around Gell River in the remote Wilderness World Heritage Area in the state's south-west.

It has burned through nearly 15,000 hectares of mostly button grass but Dale Rayner of the Tasmania Fire Service (TFS) said while it put a pall of smoke over much of southern Tasmania, no buildings have been lost.

"That's had a lot of fire activity increase [Friday], so that's put a considerable amount of smoke into the southern region, in and around Hobart," he said.

"Ahead of that fire the winds have pushed ember and ash into the communities of Maydena, Mount Field National Park, Fentonbury, [and] Ellendale.



"People need to be vigilant, because embers and sparks can go ahead of the fire; the fire front's not likely to impact on those communities, but it could start new, fresh fires that could impact rapidly."

Firefighting aircraft support was grounded during the day because of poor visibility and strong winds, but as conditions eased, Mr Rayner said they had been able to resume water-bombing.



Cool change helps firefighters

The Parks and Wildlife Service's (PWS) Paul Black said while the cool change came later than expected, conditions had moderated quite significantly and they did not expect the Gell River fire to spread during the evening.

"The wind change and cold front has come through, so conditions have moderated significantly and we're expecting that fire behaviour to subside overnight," he said.

"That particular [Wilderness World Heritage Area] community is very fire tolerant, so the impact on that community is relatively low and it recovers quite quickly and prolifically.

"It'll push back to the east and to the south and as the wind comes around to the south-west it'll start to burn back on itself.

"We're not expecting a major run at all tonight, in fact we're expecting it to be quite minimal."

Mr Black said they were looking ahead.

"We'll be considering further retardant drops, back-burning operations and a lot of water bombing and hot and cold trailing of the active edge of the fire," he said.

"At this stage the fire hasn't approached [Lake Rhona], we expect it may potentially do so in the next could of days, but if it does it's certainly a site that's well prepared."



But Chris Arnol from the Tasmania Fire Service warned the worst might not yet be over.

"I'd like to remind people we're not out of the woods, there is still significant fire risk in Tasmania and people must adhere to the fire bans," he said.

A total fire ban is in place across the east of the state until at least 2:00am Saturday, and Mr Arnol urged people to adhere to the ban and continue to report smoke and fire sightings.

"Up-to-date information is available on the and do also listen to ABC Local Radio," he said.



An evacuation centre has been opened at New Norfolk.

Temperatures dropped from a top of 34 degrees Celsius to 24C in Hobart as the change moved through.

In Campania, north of Hobart, the temperature reached 39.7C.

Campers moved on, flights delayed



Campers were ask to leave the Mount Field National Park and several flights to Hobart were delayed, with at least one diverted to Launceston, due to the weather conditions.

Mr Rayner said there were 150 crews on the ground and six aircraft monitoring the fire, but there was no way of extinguishing it.

"It's difficult to contain fires in that area, they will continue to burn for potentially most of the summer unless we get significant rain," he said.



A spokesman from the Maydena Bike Park said authorities directed them to close the tracks on Friday morning, and about 17 riders were evacuated.

Derwent Valley councillor Rachel Power, who owns the Mount Field Waterfall Cafe, said there was a feeling of concern on the ground.

"[Friday morning] we've been on alert just watching and waiting … but within an hour the smoke had really changed colour, the sky had become very red. We knew at that point it was time to leave."



Smoke makes for 'ominous' sky over Hobart



Social media users were quick to share photos of the "unusual" skies.

"This gives me shivers," Sophie Claire wrote.

"Looks like something out of Stranger Things," James Akerly wrote.

Twitter user Sassy Cicero said the sky looked "ominous".

PWS dumping retardant on wilderness fire



Mr Black said two large interstate air tankers had been brought in to help helicopter and ground crews fight the Gell River blaze.

He said PWS had made the significant decision to drop retardant on the wilderness fire.



"There's both the environmental impacts of using materials like that but there's also the cost of it as well — it's quite an expensive exercise," Mr Black said.

"Overall, when you weigh up the potential impacts of not using those products it far outweighs the minor localised impacts of using them."

He said PWS had conducted a review of using firefighting foams in the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area (TWWHA), and the service was not using the PFAS group of chemicals frequently used in industrial settings.

"We're using Class-A foam, and it's not carcinogenic," Mr Black said.

"At the rate we apply it, it's not toxic to humans.

"If we applied it in large doses obviously it would have impacts in aquatic environments so we try to avoid it in aquatic environments and use something else."

The PWS is also setting up sprinklers that can pump water from Lake Rhona to protect nearby threatened plant species.

Friday marked the sixth anniversary of the


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