A gusty south-westerly wind change is forecast to reach East Gippsland mid-afternoon on Saturday, with the Bureau of Meteorology saying it will create problems for firefighters. The change is then expected to reach the north-east on Saturday night.
“People may see relatively calm conditions this morning and think it’s not going to be such a bad fire weather day. But by the late morning, early afternoon we will see those winds picking up and a significant rise in temperature,” said senior forecaster Michael Efron.
“All the ingredients are there, unfortunately, for some really bad conditions in terms of fires that are already in the landscape.”
While fire conditions were settled on Friday night for East Gippsland, fires in the alpine areas near Mount Hotham and Dinner Plain continued to grow in size due to warm, dry, gusty conditions.
On Friday night, three fires around the Omeo region joined up to become a 6000 hectare fire.
The entirety of the Alpine National Park and the Mitchell River National Park remained closed on Saturday, along with many state forests in the state’s east.
Communities still cut off
Victoria Police Chief Commissioner Graham Ashton said there are 18 communities emergency services have been trying to access.
“We’ve got into two of those last night. There’s still 16 we’re trying to get into,” he said.
“If you go through helicopter, you talk to the local community [find out] who’s going to leave and then following off the back we provide them with comms and then a Chinook helicopter comes in with the support of the ADF [Australian Defence Force] and an evacuation occurs.”
Across all fire-affected zones, Mr Ashton says 60-70 per cent of people spoken to by police indicated they were intending to leave.
“Traffic flows have been significant, particularly out of the north-east, Upper Hume and through the high country.”
State Control Centre spokesman James Todd said the unpredictability of the 48 blazes still burning was of most concern to firefighters.
“Our concerns are that on days like today – given the extent of the fire front currently going, the dryness, the low humidity and fluky conditions – it makes firefighting really unpredictable,” he said.
“The smoke these fires they can put up, they start creating their own weather which complicates the issue, and we’re expecting new lightning strikes.
“What we’re really saying, if you’ve got the opportunity to leave, get out now. We can’t guarantee safety of people who chose to remain behind.”
Two people have died in the Victorian fires, while 21 people remain missing according to Chief Commissioner Ashton.
The Princes Highway is now closed between Lakes Entrance and Orbost due to fire activity in the area, meaning the road is closed from Lakes Entrance through to the NSW border.
Emergency services have encouraged more than 100,000 people to leave eastern Victoria in preparation for the extreme fire conditions.
Allan Aurisch and his fiancee Terri Van Den Berghe grabbed their passports, the food in their fridge and a bag of clothes before fleeing to Sale from the tiny town of Nicholson early Friday afternoon.
“We could be here for a week or more before we’re allowed to go home,” he said.
“That’s if we’ve got a home to go home to.”
As darkness fell on Friday night the Sale showgrounds, which was opened as a relief centre for evacuees of the bushfire crisis across East Gippsland, was full of campervans and tents.
A state of disaster has been declared across eastern Victoria as authorities fear extreme heat, unprecedented dryness and a dangerous wind change could lead to towns being wiped out.
The Country Fire Authority has warned it will be unable to defend towns and properties given the extreme conditions.
Premier Daniel Andrews declared the emergency late Thursday night.
“If you can leave you must,” he said.
Hundreds of residents heeded that warning, driving hours to Sale from isolated towns scattered across East Gippsland including Johnsonville, Orbost, Dargo, Swan Reach and the fishing village of Metung.
Mr Aurisch fled with his brother Darren Aurisch and his partner Louisa Miller.
They left behind friends and family who decided to stay and defend their homes and they face a hellish wait ahead of a terrifying fire day on Saturday.
“Another brother and a few good mates are still there,” Mr Aurisch said. “We’ve only got a pub, a general store and a caravan park, that’s all we’ve got in Nicholson.”
One side of Nicholson is vast farmland, while the other is a suburban hamlet dotted with houses. The caravan park is home to about 60 permanent residents, many of whom are elderly and unable to drive.
“Most of them stay there because they have no way of leaving the caravan park,” he said.
“My biggest concern is the elderly people who are stuck there with no way out. They’re all anxious and scared about what’s to come.”
The local publican planned to open the doors to the pub as a makeshift refuge if fire tore through the town.
But Mr Aurisch held grave fears for those who had been left behind.
“There’s no real safe place there, even if they go to the pub, what are they going to do if a fire rips through the town?” he said.
Sale locals donated masses of food for evacuees on Friday with volunteers cooking a barbecue and entertaining them with live music.
“I can’t even think about losing everything and having to rebuild right now,” Ms Miller said.
“But at the same time I feel very lucky. You really see the kindness in people in situations like this.”
Ashleigh McMillan is a breaking news reporter at The Age. Got a story? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Melissa Cunningham is The Age’s health reporter.