SEARING heat, a fierce northerly wind and tinder dry bush – the conditions last Sunday were akin to those of Black Saturday. As they did five years ago, fires broke out – or spread – in numerous parts of Victoria, Gippsland very much included.
There was a small grass fire at Meeniyan, a much bigger one at Morwell, and once again Yarram came under threat, this time from a fire which began northeast of Welshpool and west of Yarram in Egans Road, Jack River, around 10am on Sunday.
Fanned by a strong north-westerly, the fire raced through the heavily timbered Strzelecki foothills and nearby farmland. People living in and around Jack River, Binginwarri, Staceys Bridge, Alberton West, Madalya, Hiawatha and Devon North were advised to enact their fire plans. Some chose to escape to friends or to a relief centre established at Yarram Secondary College. Others elected to stay and protect their homes as best they could. They were helped by a large contingent of fire fighters, from the CFA, the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI), Parks Victoria and HVP Plantations. Aircraft as well as ground crews were deployed.
Speaking on Monday from the incident control centre established in the Yarram office of DEPI, Deputy Incident Controller (and Group Officer for Yarram CFA brigades) Warren Curry said that the first reports of the fire came through just after 10 on Sunday morning and local CFA brigades quickly headed to Jack River.
They were joined by crews from the South Gippsland Group, initially Hedley and Welshpool, and soon afterwards Foster and Toora, along with Toora Big Fill. Those crews worked through Sunday until about 7pm, when they were relieved by new crews, who put in an exhausting night shift. The South Gippsland crews were managed from a local command centre at Fish Creek and deployed to the Yarram Recreation Reserve, used as a staging ground, from where they were sent to the Bolgers Road area of Devon North, one of the worst affected areas.
Mr Curry said that when the fire was at its height on Sunday as many as 300 meals were prepared for personnel, including the incident management team at Yarram as well as front line fire fighters.
The fire fighters concentrated on protecting assets, and their efforts were appreciated.
Elizabeth and Uwe Steinki of Binginwarri summed up the sentiments of many when they said they wished to express their thanks for the work done by “these wonderful people”. “I consider them extremely brave…Without [the fire fighters] there in the front line, we at home manning our pumps would not feel safe. I would never be able to stand where you stand, so I thank you from the bottom of my heart.”
The fire fighters were forced to change tack when at about 1pm on Sunday the strong north-westerly changed to an equally strong south-westerly. It pushed the fire away from Yarram, but now Devon North was under threat and there were reports of embers landing in the Won Wron area.
Fire crews worked through the night to check the fire’s progress.
By Monday the fire had reached 3700 hectares. By then, however, control lines were largely holding, with the fire remaining west of the Tarra Valley Road and the Hyland Highway. There were a number of spot-overs, but police, SES and shire officers could begin the work of assessing the damage. Mr Curry said it was too early to comment on the full extent of the damage, but he believed there had been minimal loss of property.
Also speaking on Monday, South Gippsland CFA Group Officer David Grylls, of Welshpool CFA, said he expected crews would be taking shifts at the fire, if only to black out and monitor the situation, for several days.
He said it had been a busy period, with the Toora Big Fill and Welshpool tanker at a fire in the Hernes Oak/McDonald’s Track area near Yallourn from late on Friday to 11pm Saturday – only to head out again to Yarram on Sunday morning.
Roads closed on Sunday began re-opening on Monday, as the weather became milder and the fire threat eased for the most part, but drivers were reminded to take care because of all the smoke around.
By Tuesday morning there were still 16 ‘going’ fires in Gippsland alone (and more north of Melbourne), but all Emergency Warnings had been downgraded. A Watch and Act message remained for fires in East Gippsland. In the Latrobe Valley area crews were concentrating on fires in the Hazelwood open cut mine and the Maryvale Paper Mill, and there was still active fire in bush and plantations to the north of Morwell.
The work of assessing all the fires and affected areas and gathering information regarding possible property loss, stock loss, fence loss, size of fires, active edges and possible spot fires continued and is likely to go on for some time.