Otway community’s darkest Christmas

A Separation Creek home after the Otways’ Christmas Day blaze.

A Separation Creek home after the Otways’ Christmas Day blaze.

FIRE chief Mark Gunning has warned Otways residents that the blaze which destroyed 116 homes on Christmas Day is “still a big fire with a lot of potential”.

Lightning started the fire near Jamieson Track in a remote area of the Otways on December 19, with firefighting aircraft water bombing last week in an attempt to contain the blaze.

But authorities started evacuating Separation Creek and Wye River before lunchtime on Christmas Day after hot winds fanned the fire towards the neighbouring coastal communities.

About 500 Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and Country Fire Authority firefighters tackled the blaze which destroyed homes and forced the evacuation of communities as far as Lorne and Wongara during the afternoon.

Crews managed to save 324 homes in Wye River and Separation Creek, with no serious injuries or deaths in the out-of-control bushfire despite northerly wind gusts reaching up to 72 kilometres an hour and nearby Cape Otway recording its hottest Christmas Day on record at 37 degrees Celsius.

But Mr Gunning, an experienced Country Fire Authority incident controller, said the weather on Christmas Day was far from “code red or even extreme conditions”.

“It wasn’t the worst fire day and won’t be the worst fire day; this is one of the driest summers we have seen, it’s very similar to 1983,” he said.

Mr Gunning said authorities were concerned and he urged people across the district from Forrest to Deans Marsh to be ready to implement their fire plans this week.

“We are really worried, not for today but for the next bit of hot weather over New Year because it’s free burning and a lot of the land is so steep we can’t get in and put this fire out so there are still risks,” Mr Gunning said.

“We probably won’t see threats to Wye River and Kennett River but the message is there could still be other communities, particularly in the western Otways at Forrest and Barramunga right through to Deans Marsh and Lorne, who could be a risk and need to make sure they have a fire plan.”

Mr Gunning said property owners knew by yesterday if fire had destroyed their homes and there were people understandably devastated.

“Even when you know, it doesn’t make it easier, it’s heartbreaking, people are at different stages of an emotional rollercoaster, but you can re-build a house but you can’t replace people,” he said.

“A CFA member from Wye River said on one hand it was very upsetting but the community knew this would happen one day, they knew they’d lose their house but they didn’t lose their lives; it was a bitter-sweet success for them.”

Mr Gunning thanked department, CFA and council staff and volunteers who had worked throughout Christmas and Boxing Day “in horrible conditions”.

“We pushed the button as they were all about to start eating their Christmas lunch and a lot of them didn’t get home until lunchtime the next day; we had really good support.”

The fire had burnt more than 1200 hectares by the time the Colac Herald went to print yesterday, with 26 kilometres of “active fire line”.

Meanwhile, as firefighters continue to try to control the destructive blaze, Falls Festival organisers have moved the Lorne New Year’s Eve celebration to Mount Duneed.

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