(no audio)Day of horror as inferno rages
February 8, 2009
VICTORIANS today awoke to the greatest bushfire catastrophe since Ash Wednesday. A statewide inferno that may have claimed up to 40 lives is still burning out of control.
Police, who last night were finally able to reach the blackened ruins of towns and communities, confirmed that 14 people had died. Six people who perished in a single vehicle in Kinglake, in the upper Yarra Valley, may have been from one family.
But police conceded they had little idea of how many others could be interred inside their ruined homes. Today they will continue the search for at least 25 people who were unaccounted for last night.
As more than 3000 firefighters and thousands of residents in dozens of communities last night battled to save homes, it emerged that hundreds of properties had already been lost.
Wandong, near Kilmore, suffered extensive losses and at least four people are known to have died.
Fifty houses were reportedly lost in the Redesdale area near Bendigo.
Police suspect some fires were deliberately lit.
The fires were driven by hot winds of more than 100km/h, and record temperatures that peaked at 46.4 degrees in Melbourne, hotter even than Black Friday in 1939.
Premier John Brumby described it as a "a deeply sad and shocking tragedy — an incredible and terrible loss".
"My heart, and I am sure the hearts of all Victorians, goes to the families and to the firefighters and volunteers who continue to battle the fires," he said.
"It is just a day I hope in my life time I never see repeated."
Exhausted firefighters battled blazes that spread in a thick band across the entire state. A squally change in the afternoon simply changed the direction of many fires, opening up new fronts, and new threats.
All 14 confirmed dead were victims of the single most devastating fire, which started near Kilmore, north of Melbourne, before turning south-easterly, burning dozens of homes in Wandong, and threatening Whittlesea. With the afternoon change, the fire turned on the town of Kinglake, isolating it as trees blocked the road. Hundreds of residents were sheltering in Kinglake's CFA station last night.
Firefighter Kevin Davy told of his horror as the ferocious fire rushed over his crew's truck while they tried to save a house near Whittlesea.
"It swept up the hill in a second. There was nothing we could do," he said. "I'm still not sure how we made it out. Two of the blokes didn't even have time to get into the cabin, they were on the blind side of the truck. If I hadn't screamed out they wouldn't have made it out alive."
Residents of some towns, including Marysville and Buxton, had gathered on the local oval as fire threatened their towns. Police confirmed two badly injured CFA officers had been airlifted to hospital from Buxton, two of more than 20 firefighters treated for heat, stress and smoke inhalation.
A man was in a critical condition in hospital with burns to 50 per cent of his body, and another suffered facial burns. Last night ambulance officers in Bendigo reported they had taken a large number of people, including firefighters, to Bendigo hospital with heat-related injuries.
Police called on people to stay away from fire-affected areas.
At times yesterday, fires threatened the northern and eastern outskirts of Melbourne, with houses lost in Narre Warren North, and Doreen briefly coming under threat.
Other fires were burning out of control near the Loy Yang power station, threatening Melbourne's power supplies, which had already been threatened earlier when several powerlines were disabled by fire.
Out-of-control blazes were also burning near Beechworth, in the state's north-east, Bendigo, Healesville, Yarra Glen, Warragul and Darnum.
The state's transport system was also thrown into chaos with the Hume Freeway, the Princes Highway, Eastlink and three regional rail lines closed. Connex cancelled 200 suburban services.
A fire burning at Ferntree Gully severely damaged the Belgrave train line, with trains between Belgrave and Ringwood likely to be out of service for at least a few days.
The mercury in the city topped 46.4 degrees at 3.04 pm.
Electricity was nearly cut to the city when fires at Kilmore knocked out two major transmission lines from NSW, and two of the four lines from the Latrobe Valley to Melbourne were also cut.
However, 60,000 customers were still suffering blackouts, mostly in the fire-affected east of the state, and north-east, from Kilmore, to Pakenham and Traralgon. A spokesman for electricity market regulator NEMMCO said if one more Latrobe Valley line had gone down, the state would have been forced into widespread blackouts.
"The fact that stayed in place enabled us to resecure the network," said spokesman Paul Bird.
The most dangerous fires were at Horsham, where 5700 hectares were burned out before the cool change tamed it; Kilmore, which swept through the towns of Wandong, Hidden Valley, Heathcote Junction and almost to Whittlesea; and Bunyip and Churchill, where 2400 hectares were burned.
Melbourne's hospitals were on high alert in preparation for a deluge of cases, but the feared medical crisis largely failed to materialise.
Both the Royal Melbourne and St Vincent's admitted six people uffering from conditions linked to the sweltering temperatures but no case proved fatal, unlike last weekend when scores of deaths were linked to the heatwave.
Despite this, the triple-0 service experienced such a high volume of calls that other callers were struggling to get through.
"We have been trying to let people know through the ABC, not to call triple 0 unless it is an emergency," a police spokeswoman said.
Michael Bachelard and Cameron Houston theage.au.com