6 Jan 2020

Australia fires: Mega-fire will form when huge blaze in Victoria joins up with fires over border, authorities say

9:57 am on 6 January 2020

Countless stories of devastation are emerging from Victoria's east and north-east in Australia, where four people remain missing as authorities brace for more bushfire emergencies from Thursday.

A bushfire burns in the town of Moruya, south of Batemans Bay, in New South Wales on January 4, 2020.

A bushfire burns in the town of Moruya, south of Batemans Bay, in New South Wales on January 4, 2020. Photo: AFP

Two people have died and at least 110 properties have been destroyed in the fires, which have burnt through nearly a million hectares.

A strong wind warning was issued for the East Gippsland coast on Monday morning and patchy rain fell across eastern Victoria on Sunday, which firefighters said would offer only a brief reprieve for crews before temperatures begin to climb again from Thursday.

Up to 10 millimetres is expected for East Gippsland and Victoria's north-east on Monday.

Authorities are expecting blazes across East Gippsland, the north-east and Alpine regions to flare again on those days, putting dozens of exhausted communities back in the line of fire.

In the north-east, residents at a CFA meeting in Tallangatta on Sunday night were told the 130,000-hectare blaze around Corryong would join up with fires over the New South Wales border at some stage to form a mega fire.

The fire has already destroyed homes at Cudgewa, Corryong, Tintaldra and Towong and residents were told the bushfires would be a part of their lives for the next two months.

As farmers in the region begin to get access to burnt properties, they are discovering huge livestock losses, which are expected to reach into the tens of thousands.

Read more on the Australian bushfires:

Further south, the Alpine towns of Myrtleford and Bright, which had been packed with tourists planning to spend the summer, have seen large evacuations as fires around Mount Buffalo threaten to spread north.

The Army has joined efforts to drop satellite phones and supplies into dozens of cut-off communities, including several across East Gippsland, where small townships have spent a week under bushfire threat.

At the coastal town of Mallacoota, about 400 people are waiting to be evacuated today in what is expected to be the final exodus of people after the town was engulfed in a firestorm on New Year's Eve.

Relief fund launched for Victoria's 'creeping disaster'

On Sunday, Premier Daniel Andrews announced the creation of a Victorian Bushfire Appeal fund and urged people to donate money to the fund instead of goods.

The Australian government has appointed former deputy premier Pat McNamara to oversee the fund, which is starting with about $4 million.

McNamara, a former Nationals MP who also chairs the fund set up to support victims of Victoria's 2009 bushfires, said he expected the fund to grow at a "fairly rapid rate" as the needs of the community became clear.

"A lot of families have obviously lost everything," he said.

"If a house has been burned down, there's a whole lot of basic things such as clothing and getting children ready for school."

He said this year's bushfire disaster was unlike the catastrophic 2009 blazes, in which 173 people were killed on a single day.

"This one has been like a creeping disaster, where we've had fire burning in state forests and it creeps in towards habited areas, houses are going here and there and we've had unfortunately a few fatalities associated with that," he said.

"We're still not even into what we would regard as the peak of the fire season … so we've probably got at least another four to five weeks of this sort of weather and we've got to deal with it."

A former emergency services minister, McNamara said he believed the state's focus on encouraging people to evacuate to safety rather than stay and defend had saved lives.

"I'd compliment the Premier and also particularly Lisa Neville as Police and Emergency Services Minister, they've shown real professionalism in the way in which they've been dealing with this," he said.

"While they're on a different side of politics that I was on, I think this is a period where this is above politics, where everyone's trying to work to do the best for fellow Victorians and on a national basis, fellow Australians."

Bushfire 'roared like a dragon' as it destroyed homes

As residents in East Gippsland attempt to return to their cut-off homes and communities ravaged by fire, Mary and Dennis Gilbert have been left with no home at all.

The couple had lived in their Buchan East home since the late 1980s and believed they were well prepared for bushfires.

But as a fire hit their home last Monday night, they found themselves overwhelmed.

"All of a sudden it came over the top, it roared like a dragon down, and it started to spread out," Mr Gilbert said.

He began hosing down the house and was getting to the corner when suddenly a "great big fireball" came over the house and he was blown down, his hat knocked off as he sheltered with his hands.

"It was like a hot pizza oven, it was just searing," he said.

Mary and Dennis Gilbert's family, including daughter Hannah (right), did not know for some time whether the couple had survived.

Mary and Dennis Gilbert's family, including daughter Hannah (right), did not know for some time whether the couple had survived. Photo: Supplied to ABC by Mary and Dennis Gilbert

Struggling to breathe, he joined his wife in the shed.

The sheltered with their dog Coco, who was lost in the darkness and confusion and has not been seen since.

Their cat, Pebbles, miraculously survived and was found the next day, having taken shelter inside the outdoor pizza oven.

Pebbles survived the blaze by hiding in a pizza oven.

Pebbles survived the blaze by hiding in a pizza oven. Photo: Supplied to ABC by Mary and Dennis Gilbert

But as the inferno engulfed their home, they realised they had to leave the shed.

"It was red-hot and there was sparks, embers and fire everywhere," Mr Gilbert said.

They drove Mary's car away from the burning house, headed to the dam and got under the dam wall, where they sheltered with woollen blankets.

"We could see the fires coming across our farm house," Mrs Gilbert said.

"Shed after shed, the hay shed, the stables. We just saw one building after another, just the fire roaring through. It just took forever to pass through.

"We just spent the whole night sitting there and watching what was happening. We were surrounded by trees burning. We could hear trees just falling, and we could hear animals just squealing in the bush as well, it was terrible."

Mr Gilbert's hands were injured during his attempt to defend their property, so he attempted to cool them in the dam as they sheltered without their water supply and food, which lay abandoned in the burning shed.

Fears of 'enormous' wildlife destruction

In Mallacoota, local resident Patrick Boyle took it upon himself to begin checking on koalas in the area and taking those who were injured in to wildlife carers.

"We haven't lost one koala that I have rescued yet," he told the ABC on Saturday.

Mallacoota resident Patrick Boyle has been taking injured koalas to carers for treatment.

Mallacoota resident Patrick Boyle has been taking injured koalas to carers for treatment. Photo: Supplied to ABC by Renae Bruce

Authorities fear hundreds of threatened species have been affected by the East Gippsland fires, including the brushtail rock wallaby, diamond python, the spot-tailed quoll and a number of freshwater fish.

The Department of Land, Water and Planning's James Todd told ABC Gippsland that a wildlife triage centre would be set up in Bairnsdale.

"We've got lots of concerns, we're planning and doing some analysis on species that are likely to be impacted," he said.

"The scale of what we're dealing with here is going to be enormous."

Bushfire evacuees wait in Omeo

As bushfire threatened over the weekend, Mount Buller dog sled tour operator Brett Hadden found himself evacuating to Omeo with 60 huskies.

But once he arrived he found himself, his partner and their dogs confronted by orange skies as that town also came under siege on Saturday.

"It's been very stressful," he said.

His neighbours, Wayne Ryan and Cherrie Meloury, also evacuated on Friday with their six-year-old son along with their dogs, horses and some newborn kittens, who may have lost their mothers in the chaos.

"We've also left forty horses behind," Mr Ryan said.

"It was really hard to leave them behind, I was the last to leave. But I've heard they're still okay."

Mr Ryan said he had never experienced a bushfire like it.

"Everything was on fire," he said.

Once the family arrived in Omeo, they too found themselves shrouded in an orange haze and back in the path of a bushfire.

The couple's son was one of the 50 people evacuated from Omeo on military helicopters on Saturday night, while his parents stayed behind with the animals.

"Nobody he knew was on the helicopter. He was such a brave boy, " Ms Meloury said.

"Once he flew off, I lost it … I was brave for my son."

Their son is safe for now with his grandmother in Bairnsdale, as his parents remain in Omeo with their animals, unsure when they will be reunited.


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