29 Nov 2018

Queensland bushfire emergency prompts thousands to flee homes

9:16 am on 29 November 2018

Most residents have fled the central Queensland town of Gracemere, in northeast Australia, after authorities issued an urgent plea to leave as a fast-moving and dangerous fire burnt toward the town.

Firefighters refill their water from a water tanker in Pacific Drive in Deepwater National Park area of Queensland.

Firefighters refill their water from a water tanker in Pacific Drive in Deepwater National Park area of Queensland. Photo: AFP

Queensland Fire and Emergency Services (QFES) Commissioner Katarina Carroll said the fire flared quickly, moving from Stanwell toward Gracemere, but a major aerial effort had slowed its pace by nightfall on Wednesday.

"[At] the fire at Gracemere, we've had the advantage of using the aerial tankers to give us some good suppression in that area, so that has assisted us greatly," she said.

"However, that cannot operate through the night, and in some of those areas it's actually too dangerous to have crews in those areas."

By 11pm local time there had been no buildings lost in Gracemere, and the fire had been downgraded, however it was not safe for residents to return.

About 200 Gracemere residents spent Wednesday night at the evacuation centre at Rockhampton Showgrounds, while firefighters continued working through the night.

It came as the Bureau of Meteorology declared a catastrophic fire risk for the Capricornia and Central Highlands and Coalfields in central Queensland.

Later in the evening, a warning to leave immediately was given for Deepwater, Baffle Creek, Rules Beach and Oyster Creek south of Gladstone as an extremely large and intense fire spread in a southerly direction towards Coast Road.

A firefighter is seen near the bushfires in Deepwater National Park area of Queensland, in northeast Australia on November 28, 2018

Photo: AFP

Firefighters are conducting backburning operations in the vicinity of Rules Road.

Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said hot conditions were likely to continue into next week.

"We expect to be in this heatwave at least until next Tuesday, so it is going to be very serious conditions from now until then," she said.

She said schools in the catastrophic zone would not be opening on Thursday.

"We want families to be safe and I think all families would agree with me these are unprecedented conditions."

QFES predictive services manager Andrew Sturgess said the Stanwell fire would not reach Rockhampton.

"It will get really smoky, visibility will be really bad but we are not expecting the fire to get near to Rockhampton. Our firefighters are starting to get on top of this fire," he said.

Commissioner Carroll said nearly 200 fires were burning across the state.

"Some of those are still of great concern to us, particularly around Ambrose, Camilla and obviously the fire that is at Gracemere," Commissioner Carroll said.

"Can I please ask all in that area to listen to authorities … look at traditional media as well as social media."

State disaster coordinator Bob Gee said firefighters had been risking their own lives to ensure Gracemere residents got away safely.

"I won't confirm specific numbers but the best estimate I can give you is that the vast majority of people at Gracemere have moved or are still in the process of moving," he said.

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Photo: RNZ / QFES

Resident Alison French left the town with her two young children.

"It's horrendous, you wouldn't want to be near it," she said.

"It was a relief when we left and the kids are safe - that's the thing I care about more than anything.

"I don't know if we're going to have anything to go back to, but it seems to be getting worse."

Earlier, the QFES Commissioner confirmed several homes had been destroyed in fires burning at Finch Hatton, west of Mackay.

"I do think that's in single digits at the moment, we will not be able to confirm that for some time," she said.

Finch Hatton resident Luana Royle told the ABC conditions there had been "terrible".

"Our fires around here, you couldn't even see 500 metres in front of you this morning," she said.

"Everyone is OK, but two houses have went, which is pretty sad."

Meanwhile, fire emergencies continue to threaten properties further north in the area from Ambrose to Mount Larcom.

By 5pm on Wednesday, local authorities told the ABC all residents in Ambrose and Mount Larcom had been evacuated.

Scott Collins lost his home and his dog when the fire ripped through Capricornia Drive at Deepwater on Tuesday.

Mr Collins said he fled the house with his 25-year-old son and a second dog on Sunday as the fire approached.

"You've got your friends grieving over you because you tried to save a few extra things that in the end aren't important - as long as your family's out," he said.

"But we left our dog which was upsetting - they're the things that cut you deep. We couldn't get him in time."

Mr Collins said it had been important just to get out safely.

"The problem there is that you could get trapped with one road in and one road out, that's why we took off straight away - they're [firefighters] the professionals, if they say go, you go.

"It was a thick mass of smoke and you couldn't see so much flame, but with the smoke it had become so thick ... we realised it was pretty intense, you could feel the heat."


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