9 Jan 2020

Australia bushfires: Victoria extends state of disaster as danger rises

2:22 pm on 9 January 2020

Premier Daniel Andrews has extended Victoria's first-ever state of disaster ahead of "significant fire activity" forecast for the next two days as the bushfire crisis continues.

This handout photo taken on January 3, 2020 and released by the Royal Australian Navy shows people walking to a beach before being evacuated from Mallacoota, Victoria state to HMAS Choules, during bushfire relief efforts.

People walking to a beach before being evacuated from Mallacoota, Victoria. Photo: AFP / Royal Australian Navy

The declaration, which gives the state and emergency services additional powers, was put into place last Thursday.

Andrews said the extension was needed to manage what was likely to be a significant increase in bushfire activity over the next 48 hours.

The state of disaster covers East Gippsland, the Alpine region and the state's north-east.

Authorities were urging people to leave the Alpine region and all areas east of Bairnsdale, in East Gippsland as the fire danger increased again.

Another expected round of dry lightning, combined with a forecast wind change, could potentially cause fast-moving fires across the state from Friday.

"This is a really significant challenge for us," Andrews said.

"We don't underestimate it. We don't lightly extend the state of disaster. We have done it because we believe that it will save lives and that, after all, is the most important thing."

Victoria's state premier, Daniel Andrews, speaks during a press conference in Melbourne on December 21, 2017, after car ploughed into a crowd of people earlier in the day.


Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said the message for those in fire zones remained the same as when tens of thousands were told to leave East Gippsland before New Year's Eve: "You should not be there."

Authorities said 23 fires were burning across the state this morning.

The huge blazes covering much of the state's east have destroyed at least 244 homes and hundreds more structures, but the full extent of the damage will not be known until assessment teams are able to access remote parts of the state.

The state's death toll from the fires now sits at three, after authorities confirmed the crash that killed "well-loved" firefighter Mat Kavanagh on Friday was fire-related.

Residents stranded in isolated communities have been cutting their way out of bushfire zones to get through closed roads, prompting serious safety warnings from authorities.

In a warning posted on the Vic Emergency website yesterday, authorities begged people to wait until firefighters and the Australian Defence Force could clear roads and mark them as safe before attempting to drive out.

But with nearly 5000km of roads to clear, authorities warned it would take some time before roads are made safe.

Residents commute on a road through thick smoke from bushfires in Bemboka, in Australia's New South Wales state on Sunday 5 January, 2020.


"Residents must stop this immediately. It is not safe to drive on these roads until they have been treated for hazardous trees and other damage," the warning said.

A State Control Centre spokesman said the official advice was for residents who are leaving East Gippsland to monitor VicRoads updates, plan a route out of the area and leave when possible to do so safely. But he said no-one should be trying to access closed roads.

Fires growing in the Alpine region

Erratic winds overnight on Wednesday led to a number of out-of-control spot fires from a fire front near Carboor, south-east of Wangaratta.

Authorities said the northern tip of the fire was "extremely active overnight" and warned people to leave the area before conditions became too dangerous.

Carboor resident Nicola Bussell said she evacuated with two of her children at midnight, after her firefighter husband Harry "came racing back" to warn the family.

From their home on a hill, Ms Bussell told ABC Radio Melbourne "you could see that the whole horizon was all glowing" as the fire moved north.

Fire activity has also increased south-east of Lake Buffalo in Mt Buffalo National Park.

There are 140 firefighters in the Alpine region constructing control lines and controlling spot fires ahead of the worsening conditions.

Authorities said no one should travel to the area.

Corryong residents bury stock and prepare for more fire

In the north-east Victorian town of Corryong, which was hit by a raging bushfire on New Year's Eve, people were being forced to show photo ID and prove they are residents before being allowed through roadblocks into the town.

The Murray Valley Highway is only open from 7am to 8pm each day, as authorities deem it is still too dangerous to drive at night, and all other roads into the town are closed.

The Vic Emergency warning states it is possible those returning to their homes in Corryong "could become isolated and unable to leave the area for extended periods of time due to changing conditions or fire behaviour that may impact the road".

Firefighters were able to slow the spread of fire near Corryong with the help of cooler weather and light rainfall on Wednesday, but a temperature rise this afternoon could force the Corryong fire to merge with others, including a large fire near the NSW border.

Staff from Towong Shire Council and the Defence Force will continue to help farmers remove dead animals from farmland today. A hole was dug yesterday in Settlement Road, Tintaldra, for the deceased animals.

Communities remain isolated

Authorities are still trying to make contact with anyone in two other isolated communities - Maramingo Creek and Wingan River.

Forty additional ADF personnel arrived in East Gippsland on Wednesday, with their first priority to clear roads and gain access to the still isolated communities of Club Terrace and Combienbar.

A group of 67 North American firefighters also arrived in Melbourne yesterday morning and will start working with local fire crews on Saturday.

Smoke and haze over mountains seen from a No 11 Squadron P-8A Poseidon aircraft assessing damage in the area from bushfires, in Cooma in New South Wales.

Photo: Murray Staff / Royal Australian Air Force / AFP

Essential supplies continue to be dropped into Mallacoota and other isolated communities, including medication, food, fuel for generators, ice and fresh water.

Power outages are still affecting many towns within the fire zone and the blazes have obliterated telecommunications infrastructure.

Almost 3000 homes had no power as of Thursday night.

Ausnet is working to set up a generator in Walwa to power 70 customers who are currently off-supply and arrived in Cudgewa yesterday to assess damage to main lines.

East Gippsland fires remain out of control

Favourable weather conditions have slowed the spread of fire in East Gippsland, but many are still burning out of control.

The Vic Emergency website said fires in the area had "joined into one large fire" burning through more than a million hectares.

On Thursday, fire crews were attempting controlled burns around the coastal communities of Bemm River, Furnell and Tamboon in a bid to protect property ahead of a wind change which is expected to cause problems across the fire grounds tomorrow.

Residents from those towns, and nearby Cann River, were isolated for a week after the New Year's Eve blaze.

Those who were escorted out of the area on Tuesday to buy much-needed supplies in Orbost described "a wall of flames" approaching the tiny towns and their shock and relief at surviving.

Mallacoota maritime evacuation ends

The last evacuees from the cut-off town of Mallacoota sailed into Western Port Bay onboard the Navy vessel HMAS Choules on Wednesday afternoon.

The coastal town, near the NSW border, was hit by an out-of-control bushfire on New Year's Day that forced thousands to shelter on the foreshore.

HMAS Choules docked near HMAS Cerberus, marking the end of the maritime operation to get more than 1,000 people out of the community.

More than 200 evacuees, along with 66 CFA volunteers, were be brought ashore on landing craft to be reunited with friends and family.

Mallacoota remains without power but many locals have opted to stay in the town, which remains completely cut off, as work continues to clear fallen and damaged trees from the only road out of town.