Rains on the way?

Sarah Luke

WHILE milder conditions are expected to subdue fire activity this week, emergency services are urging communities to remain vigilant.

A tropical cyclone in Australia’s north is expected to continue to improve fire conditions, as it brings much-needed moisture down south.

Showers are forecast for most of east Gippsland from Thursday to Monday.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster Michael Efron, tropical storms expected to arrive at fire-affected areas on Thursday will be slow moving, delivering localised bouts of heavy rain.

Toward the end of the week and into the weekend, the trough will persist over eastern Victoria, dragging moisture in from the Tasman Sea.

The falls are expected to intensify on Sunday and Monday, with “potentially-useful” rainfalls to drop on fire-affected areas.

“We’ve seen the monsoon kick off well and truly across tropical parts of Australia in recent weeks, so that has helped to deliver a lot of moisture across not just northern Australia, but into the interior as well,” he said.

“Any northerly or north-easterly winds we get do tend to drag that moisture down toward Victoria, which does act to suppress that fire danger.”

With thunderstorms predicted this week, emergency services have advised residents to keep an eye on local rainfalls, particularly south of the divide and areas north of Bairnsdale, as up to 50mm of rain in an hour could result in flash flooding.

Flooding would result in erosion in hilly areas, which has the potential to drag unburnt material across roads, including easily-felled drought-stressed trees, and move debris into creeks and dams.

Flash flooding would also render the fire grounds as exceptionally hazardous for emergency services.

There are also concerns lightning could spark new fires, as the storms roll across the region.

In the meantime, benign weather conditions mean crews can backburn to manage the fire’s spread.

During the next week, smoke is expected to come and go across the state, depending on wind and cloud cover.

Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said the state of disaster had been lifted, but may return later in the summer if there were continued spike days and new fires.

“We’re a long way from the end of this – we’re only at mid-January and we’ve got a long way to go in terms of our fire season,” Ms Neville said.

Milder conditions mean emergency service personnel will be able to be rotated and rested, and people will be able to return to their properties to assess damage.

Friday proved a challenging day for firefighters, with high winds and temperatures.

There were 51 new fire starts across Victoria caused by dry lightning on Friday.

Preparation with strategically placed resources meant most of these fires were controlled within a few hours. Still, three evacuation orders were enforced across Victoria.

US firefighters integrated with Australian CFA crews to work on new starts caused by dry lightning in the Tambo Valley.

More than 100 US firefighters, aviation specialists and fire behaviour analysts are now working on Victorian fires, and another 140 firefighters and specialists are expected to arrive at the end of the week.

A fast-moving grassfire threatened Wodonga, but was contained to the loss of two structures.

In east Gippsland, Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp advised there wasn’t much activity on the fire edge, rather it burnt within the perimeter.

A Severe Weather Warning for east Gippsland, the north east and west and south Gippsland was cancelled late on Friday, as destructive, gale-force winds eased as they travelled further east.

Rain at the weekend resulted in some suppressed fire conditions, but was inconsistent across the fire ground.

Bairnsdale recorded 13.4mm on Saturday, but Mallacoota only received 2mm.

On Sunday morning, Victoria Police, CFA and Ambulance Victoria coordinated a large-scale vehicle evacuation from Mallacoota to Eden.

A convoy of 11 CFA trucks, an ambulance and 67 civilian cars (carrying about 100 people who registered) were able to leave Mallacoota and make it safely to Eden.

It was the first chance for people to leave Mallacoota by land since the firestorm hit.

The convoy was made possible by Forest Fire Management Victoria crews who worked for 12 days – walking, marking, clearing and treating hazardous trees for 74.4 kilometres.

Surrounding roads are still open for emergency vehicle access only, and residents are not yet able to return.

Premier Daniel Andrews, Bush Fire Recovery Victoria head Ken Lay, Eastern Victoria MLC Jane Garrett and CFA deputy chief officer Stephanie Rotarangi visited emergency services in east Gippsland on Sunday.

Escorted by Forest Fire Management Victoria senior officer Grant Tucker, the group visited Mount Norman, closed sections of Princes Highway, and Orbost Incident Control Centre.

The group then toured Orbost Regional Hospital, meeting with a young patient affected by the fires.

Water has been contaminated in Buchan and Omeo after the bushfire hit the treatment facility, and the water is not suitable for drinking.

Buchan and Cann River have been urged to reduce their water usage to essential use only to conserve supplies, as they are currently running low.

At the time the Gippsland Times went to print on Monday morning, there were three watch and act messages current for the east Gippsland bushfires.

An emergency warning in place for Tamboon, Tamboon South and Furnell was downgraded to watch and act mid-morning.

In alpine areas, there were four watch and act messages, and an emergency warning in place for Bennies, Cheshunt South, Markous, Rose River, Top Crossing and Wabonga.

The northern parts of Wellington Shire were under an advice message, after “a little movement” on the Blue Rag Range fire, about 10 kilometres north and east of Dargo, and the Tambo Complex of fires about 8km east of Tabberabbera, on Sunday afternoon.

The Dargo High Plains Rd and Upper Dargo Rd were closed.

Opening the Princes Highway east of Bairnsdale has been declared a priority for emergency services, and it is hoped the road in and out of Mallacoota will be cleared within two weeks.

There was a statewide warning in place for air quality, with Vic Emergency warning the north east and east Gippsland were likely to experience decreased air quality early this week, as higher temperatures increase fire activity and calm conditions cause smoke to pool and drift into towns at the foot of valleys.

On Monday morning, the Environmental Protection Agency of Victoria rated air quality in Orbost as hazardous, Sarsfield and Rosedale as very poor, and moderate in Bairnsdale.

EPA predictions suggested very poor air quality for east Gippsland, the Latrobe Valley, Melbourne and most of the rest of the state.

More than 1000 firefighters are working on the east Gippsland fire, while about 600 or 700 are working on fires in the state’s north-east.

More than 1.35 million hectares have burnt across the state – with nearly one million in east Gippsland.

The human death toll from the Victorian bushfires has risen to four, after the death of Forest Fire Management Victoria firefighter and Parks Victoria staff member, Bill Slade.

The Wonthaggi man was working on a fire in Anglers Rest near Omeo on Saturday, when he was killed by a falling tree. He was part of a task force that was consolidating the fire edge, working in a forested environment.

Parks Victoria chief executive Matthew Jackson said the father of two was extensively experienced in firefighting, contributing more than 40 years to firefighting and caring for parks.

Conditions can change rapidly. People should use multiple sources to stay informed. Visit www.emergency.vic.gov.au; Freecall VicEmergency Hotline on 1800 226 226; download the VicEmergency app; visit VicEmergency on Facebook and Twitter; and listen to emergency broadcasters (ABC Gippsland’s frequency in Sale and Bairnsdale is 100.7FM and 828FM).

For information about relief centres, donations, road closures, wellbeing or returning home, visit www.emergency.vic.gov.au/relief.