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Road to Orbost opens and tourists flee as locals face anxious wait

The Princes Highway from Bairnsdale into Orbost via Lakes Entrance was opened for the first time in days on Thursday.

Grey skies and a dreamlike haze shroud the heavily forested country along the road leading into Orbost, making it almost impossible to see even a few metres ahead.

The road is lined with tall native trees that stretch over the highway, nestled between hills and patches of dry, drought-stricken farmland.

It has so far been spared the fires that ravage surrounding towns, but emergency service workers who cut back trees and mowed grass on the side of the highway on Thursday afternoon were a stark reminder of the furnace-like conditions expected to return in coming days.

The highway is eerily quiet and scattered with police. Those who drive along the road do so with their headlights on.

By late Thursday afternoon, the relief centre at the Orbost Cricket Club was almost empty.

Crowds of tourists who had sought refugee at the oval bundled into their cars and left as quickly as they had arrived on Monday night when a fire threatened to engulf the town.

Thursday’s cooler conditions made moving to Orbost easier for people from other fire-ravaged parts of East Gippsland.

A convoy of 46 cars and several buses from Cann River arrived in Orbost about 3pm.

The Orbost Incident Control Centre had sent an alert to people in the Cann River area who wanted to leave the tiny isolated town and make the 75-kilometre journey to relative safety.

“Ahead of the dangerous fire conditions there is an opportunity for residents to relocate from Cann River to Orbost today via bus or convoy in your own vehicle,” the alert stated.

“The meeting point is the Cann River P-12 School at three o’clock this afternoon.”

Locals at Cann River – with a population of 200 people – have been low on food, water and fuel because the Princes Highway remains closed.

Helicopter crews had planned to evacuate people on Tuesday night, but local woman Deb Taylor said that plan had been abandoned because the smoke made the plan too risky.

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Between 50 and 100 people were bunking down at the Cann River school hall, Ms Taylor told The Age on Wednesday, and relying on their own dwindling supplies and whatever the supermarket could donate.

Ms Button is one of only a handful of local residents left at the Orbost relief centre who are sleeping in campervans and tents on the oval.

She has been sleeping in a wooden campervan attached to the back of her car since she fled her home in the tiny town of Cabbage Tree Creek, about 26 kilometres out of Orbost, on Monday morning, along with 40 other locals who make up the township’s entire population.

The anxiety of the wait has been agonising. Ms Button has kept her mind busy caring for four rescued baby joeys and her poodle cross Maltese terrier Mason.

“I’m lucky I have them. They need lots of cuddles and they given me something to do because the wait has been horrendous,” she said. “My main priority is keeping them safe.”

Ms Button was told by a local her house is safe for now. But she fears hot and windy conditions in the coming days will put her home in the line of fire again.

The front seat of her car is filled with her most treasured worldly possessions including photographs of her parents and family.

“We are far from out of the woods,” she said. “Saturday is going to be the big teller.”

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