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Queensland bushfire threat continues, water-bombing helicopter crash-lands on Darling Downs

By Rebeka Powell, staff, Thursday November 14, 2019 - 00:26 EDT
ABC licensed image
Smoke billows from a fire at Noosa North Shore. - ABC licensed

The pilot of a water-bombing helicopter has walked away with minor injuries after crash-landing while battling a blaze at Pechey, west of Brisbane.

Paramedics said the helicopter, operated by McDermott Aviation, "landed heavily" in the fire zone just before 2:00pm.

The experienced pilot, who is in his 70s, has been taken to Toowoomba Hospital in a stable condition.

Tim Crittenden, south-western region manager for the Rural Fire Service, said other water-bombing aircraft in the area had to be momentarily stood down while the crash was investigated.

"This fire has behaved very erratically today," he said.

"We've had it contained probably four times and just when we think we're over the worst of it, the fire jumps and takes a fairly significant run.

"So it has been a very difficult fire."

Scenic Rim Regional Council Mayor Greg Christensen said the helicopter crash was "heartbreaking" and highlighted the risks people were taking to save lives and property.

"The guys who go up in the air over these fires, the turbulence that comes off fires, particularly in these corridors, must make it really challenging and they do a great job," he said.

Conditions worsened in parts of Queensland on Wednesday afternoon following an unfavourable wind change, by the evening more than 80 fires were burning around the state.

Throughout the day more than 1,000 firefighters and 300 firefighting vehicles were on the job.

An emergency evacuation order issued for Pechey was downgraded to watch and act at 11:00pm on Wednesday.

Residents in another three communities have been told to "leave now" if they do not have a bushfire survival plan ready. Those communities are Kilkivan, west of Gympie, and the neighbouring towns of Woodgate and Kinkuna, which are affected by the same fire south of Bundaberg.

Six other towns have been told to prepare to leave.

The fire near Buxton, which is being affected by the "Woodgate fire", broke out about 10:00am and district disaster coordinator Inspector Pat Swindells said conditions deteriorated quickly on Wednesday afternoon when the fire started to rapidly head back towards the town.

Its 400 resident have been told to leave.

"If the fire does engulf that area, they won't be able to get out, they'll be caught in there and we don't want that situation," he said.

"There's only one road in and one road out."

A wind change about midnight was expected to start pushing the fire away from the town towards coastal areas.

"They're going to try and put some firebreaks between where the fire is now, and Woodgate, and the Walkers Point area … it's all weather-dependent," Inspector Swindells said.

The same fire could also threaten the nearby community of Burrum Heads.

Duane Asmus, from Brisbane, was holidaying in the small fishing town and said by the time he was evacuating, wind gusts had picked up and a "very heavy smoke haze" was covering the area.

"Most people were up and gone pretty quickly," he said.

"It wasn't quite the chilled holiday I'd expected. You can't stop Mother Nature. You do what you do."

Noosa Mayor Tony Wellington said firefighters have been able to get the Noosa North Shire fire under control, however the weather overnight will pose an ongoing threat.

"It's been a bit of a battle here because the wind keeps changing, the fire was contained, then broke containment lines and has now been contained again," he said.

"The problem with the easterly wind at the moment is, it's pushing the fire back toward properties at Noosa North Shore.

"They hope to get it under control enough so overnight that ground crew can hold onto the containment lines.

"I'm sorry to say it's the third fire that has started up on North Shore ... which might lead one to assume that it wasn't an act of nature shall we say."

Campground manager Leesa Downey was out of town when the Noosa North Shore fire broke out and police would not let her to return to her house or the campground she manages there.

"It is just watching the smoke get worse and wondering exactly how close it is to my house is a bit concerning. But we just have to wait and see and hope," she said.

Craig Studwick was evacuated on Wednesday morning for the second time in just a matter of days.

"As long as you've got your family and everything you need, you just get out, got the kids and animals, and photos are all downloaded, everything else is replaceable."

The threat from a fire at Beenleigh, south of Brisbane, was downgraded about 3:00pm, however, a local shopping centre was evacuated and smoke affected the Pacific Motorway for the evening peak hour.

Further south, staff at the five-star Spicers Peak Lodge resort on Queensland's Southern Downs were evacuated on Wednesday morning as a bushfire approached. Guests were asked to leave on Monday.

"We're hopeful that the buildings will be protected but sadly it'll be the loss of wildlife and the flora there on this beautiful property … we also have 600 head of cattle there as well," managing director David Assef said.

An unfavourable wind change on Wednesday afternoon saw dry gusty winds sweep west south-west across the Darling Downs, parts of the south-east coast and up to Wide Bay and Burnett districts.

There was severe fire danger in those areas as well as pockets of extreme conditions for the far east of the Darling Downs and western Lockyer Valley.

Authorities also reminded locals the Cunningham Highway has been closed.

BOM senior forecaster Michael Knepp said there had been some reprieve on Wednesday evening for Darling Downs communities around Toowoomba, with moist air from the east spreading through the area.


Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk urged people to pay attention to the warnings from authorities.

"Now of course is the time not to be complacent. We need everyone to be listening to authorities today, the conditions are of concern to us," she said.

Extra resources have been brought in, including 110 firefighters from New Zealand, Victoria, Tasmania and the Northern Territory, and 40 water-bombing aircraft.


© ABC 2019

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