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‘There’s a lot of fuel on the ground’: French Island blaze still burning

The fire was downgraded to an ‘advice’ warning overnight and fire investigators will travel to French Island on Sunday to determine the cause.

Fifteen fires continue to burn throughout the state on Sunday. Four watch and act messages remained in place for fires near Mount Buffalo on Sunday afternoon.

The fire started at about 2pm

The fire started at about 2pmCredit:Nine News

SCC state response controller Alistair Drayton said airbombers were vital in subduing the spread of fire on French Island.

“The damage could well have been much greater than it was, given the quite incredible fire behaviour. At one point there was six aircraft working on the fire,” he said.

A Kernot-Grantville CFA tanker on board a barge heading to the bushfire at French Island.   

A Kernot-Grantville CFA tanker on board a barge heading to the bushfire at French Island.   Credit:CFA

“The importance of the ability of air attack is so critical in these sorts of circumstances in difficult terrain or locations.

“It’s a 30-minute round trip from one side to the other [of the island]. The ferry can only take one large and one small truck, so it was a matter of timing. I remember looking at one stage, and there was eight vehicles waiting at for the ferry.”

Mr Drayton said it was hoped the fire would be fully contained by early Sunday afternoon. Six fire trucks remain on the island, working on containment lines.

There are significant populations of bandicoot and chlamydia-free koalas which live in the island’s national park.

“We are trying to get an understanding of wildlife losses. We have a particular interest it the koala population,” he said.

Authorities will be entering the fireground to assess wildlife losses as soon as it is safe to do so.

Brent Le Serve, who part-owns the French Island General Store, said the island is 70 per cent bush and hasn’t had a big fire for 30 or 40 years.

“There’s a lot of fuel on the ground,” he said.

He said the work of the barge transporting CFA trucks from the mainland to French Island was made more difficult due to a very low tide.

Water bombers worked tirelessly for more than four hours from 2pm, while the first truck arrived at 5pm. Mr Le Serve said he watched the fire on Saturday night until it was downgraded, and without the water bombers, it wouldn’t have been contained so quickly.

There have been calls for Australia to increase its permanent aerial firefighting fleet, but Natural Disaster Minister David Littleproud said he would be heeding the advice of the Australasian Fire and Emergency Service Authorities Council.

“There’s a lot of sideline commentators but I want to listen to the fire commissioners, they’re the ones with the expertise, they’re the ones with the science that should ride our decisions and where we take the aerial assets that we have in this country,” Mr Littleproud said.

“I know there’s plenty of opinions out there, there’s plenty of gratuitous advice, but the best advice comes from the fire commissioners.”

French Island is known for its strong koala population, which is sometimes used to repopulate other areas because of its chlamydia-free status. Around 119 people live on the island year-round.

Severe thunderstorms and heavy rain are on the way for central and north eastern parts of Victoria and are expected to hit on Sunday evening, creating concerns about potential flash flooding, according to the Bureau of Meteorology’s duty forecaster Tom Fejes.

“There will be quite heavy rainfall, and there’s a risk we’ll see that move over the Melbourne region,” Mr Fejes said.

He noted that lightning would likely occur in areas getting decent downpours of rain, reducing the potential for strikes on dry bush which could ignite suddenly.

SCC’s Mr Drayton noted there were very real concerns about flash flooding again on Sunday, but there are hopes heavy rainfall will hit areas where fires are still burning.

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“Potentially areas are going to receive 50mm plus today, and that’s the type of rainfall required for it to have any effect on the fireground,” he said.

“There are risks of flash flooding, particularly in areas already affected by fire, where the vegetation has been removed. Debris and rocks can move into creeks and waterways, so there could be flash-flooding downstream from these areas.”

French Island is Victoria’s largest island and is only accessible via the barge or a passenger ferry that run from Stony Point on the Mornington Peninsula and Cowes at nearby Phillip Island.

The roads on the island are dirt tracks. There are no police and many of the vehicles are unregistered. It is also known for being free of introduced animals, such as foxes.

Fifteen fires were burning across the state on Sunday morning.

So far, bushfires have burnt through more than 1.5 million hectares in Victoria, damaged 387 homes and 602 non-residential buildings. Five people have died in Victoria’s fires.

With Tom Cowie, Tate Papworth, Sumeyya Ilanbey 

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