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‘It’s going to be a long summer’: East Gippsland locals watch towns burn twice in a week

“It was hitting us from almost every direction,” Mr Blakeman said. “They told us, ‘We can’t stay here and help you and you shouldn’t stay either.’ They had to try and save the town.”

The couple have defended their home from out-of-control bushfires using sprinklers and fire hoses twice in five days.

“Everything about these fires is indiscriminate,” Mr Blakeman said. “One thing is burned to the ground, while right next to it, there’s a tree or house untouched.”

Mrs Blakeman’s brother-in-law, Chris, who drove to the property to help the couple defend the bluestone house they had built themselves, wonders if perhaps it was the front porch that sheltered the home from the embers and hot ash which rained down.

Days before the first fire hit, the Blakemans were sitting under their fruit trees on a sunny Christmas day, admiring this season’s crop of ripe apricots and juicy plums.

“It might even have had something do with the fruit trees catching alight and stopping the speed of the fire,” Mrs Blakeman said touching a charred black leaf of an apricot tree with the tip of her finger. “We all think different things saved us.”

Half of the 22 houses in town were razed that night. The town’s historic trestle bridge was also destroyed.

One elderly Wairewa man spent the night huddled in the river after his house caught fire. He arrived at the town’s hall the next morning, his face covered in ash and soaking wet. He drank an entire bottle of water without taking a breath before he could speak a word.

But as temperatures soared into the 40s on Saturday, the threat returned.

Mr and Mrs Blakeman took turns sleeping through the night as an inferno ravaged the bushland near their home, sparking spot fires from trees.

“It’s all still very raw,” Mr Blakeman said. “We haven’t had time to process one fire before we were worried about the next one.”

Firefighters would later say that each time the wind changed direction, the fire front would race towards a different town.

Authorities warned that the 25 fires across the state could continue to burn for at least another eight weeks.

“I heard on the news last night they could burn for months,” Mrs Blakeman said. “I don’t think I could cope with that. It worries me there’s trees that haven’t quite caught alight and they are now so dry. We’re only at the beginning of summer.”

In the neighbouring town of Nowa Nowa about six kilometres away, locals are also on edge. There has been no power in the town since Monday. A shared radio at the town’s general store is being used to monitor bushfire warnings.

“We’ve had a few close calls,” Robert Cellar said. “It was only the wind change which saved our bacon on Saturday.”

Nowa Nowa resident Robert Cellar used a hose to defend his home.

Nowa Nowa resident Robert Cellar used a hose to defend his home.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Mr Cellar stood in his frontyard at 2pm on Saturday as the sky turned black, ready to hose down embers.  But a sudden wind change led to the fire changing its path, narrowly avoiding Nowa Nowa and heading south into bushland.

“Up there was all red glow,” he said pointing to the forest that surrounds the town of fewer than 200 people. “It could all still go up at any time. Those trees out there are dry as a bone.”

Nearby in Mossiface, smouldering trees, blackened paddocks, piles of rubble where homes once sat and burnt cars line Giovanni Kilman’s street.

Fire damage viewed from the farming hamlet of Wairewa.

Fire damage viewed from the farming hamlet of Wairewa.Credit:Chris Hopkins

Most of his neighbours are homeless, but his white, pristine weatherboard house stands untouched.

“I have no idea why my house is still standing when so many others lost their homes,” he said. “You feel guilty. You feel empty and sad.”

Mr Kilman heard an almighty bang on Monday afternoon. The sound was his neighbour’s house bursting into flames.

“It was like a fire tornado,” he recalls. “It was pitch black in the middle of the afternoon.”

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As orange flames sky spat hot, black ash onto his face, Mr Kilman armed himself with a hose and a wet mop and prayed.

“The heat was unbearable,” he said. “It’s how I imagine hell would be.”

As we spoke to Mr Kilman on Saturday, a grassfire burning behind his property was headed to nearby Johnsonville. A few metres away a large oak tree, blackened by fires earlier that week, creaked loudly before crashing to the ground.

“I’m not insured so I want to stay and defend my home,” Mr Kilman said. “If it gets too much, I plan on going into the dam.  But I tell you, it’s going to be a long summer.”

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