Lives under threat after ‘dramatic’ escalation

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A staggering five emergency warnings and a further six evacuation warnings are now in place across Victoria as uncontrolled bushfires threaten to gain momentum with conditions expected to worsen today.

More than 50 blazes remained out-of-control across the state overnight as it braces for temperatures forecast to reach as high as 44C.

Strong winds are also expected, which could merge out-of-control bushfires, and threaten more lives and properties.

Two people have been confirmed dead in the Victoria bushfires and 28 people remain unaccounted for, as fears for their safety grows. Premier Daniel Andrews this week declared a State of Disaster, allowing the government to order evacuations in an area with as many as 140,000 permanent residents and tens of thousands more vacationers.

“We have grave fears for the safety and wellbeing for those 28 who cannot be located,” Mr Andrews said.

“Some of those who were part of the original 17 were located (Thursday).

“If you can leave, you must leave.”

Emergency warnings have been issued for Berringama, Burrowye, Koelong, Lucyvale, Nariel Valley, Shelley and the surrounding communities in Victoria.

They are also current for Brumby, Cobberas and Deddick Valley, as well as Suggan Buggan, Wulgulmerang and Wulgulmerang East. Further warnings are active for Bendoc, Bonang, Cabanandra, Deddick Valley, Delegate River, Dellicknora, Goongerah, Haydens Bog, Nurran, Roaring Camp and Tubbut, along with Biggara, Tintaldra, Towong, Towong Upper, Walwa and surrounding communities.

The Murray Valley Highway is closed in both directions due to increased potential for impact from the fire, and weather conditions are predicted to be extreme. They will create conditions which “may not be survivable”, according to the CFA.

“You are in danger and need to act immediately to survive. The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately. It is too late to leave,” a CFA spokesperson said.

Victoria’s CFA reports fire activity has “increased dramatically” to the north west of Anglers Rest, and the front is continuing to move towards Omeo, Dinner Plain and Cobungra.

The emergency warning has been extended to cover all of the following areas: Anglers Rest, Benambra, Bingo Munjie, Bingo Munjie North, Bundara, Cobungra, Dargo, Flourbag, Glen Valley, Glen Wills, Hinnomunjie, Mayford, Nelse, Omeo, Omeo Valley, Shannonvale, Swifts Creek, Tongio and Wentworth.

The fire was expected to impact the township of Omeo in the early hours of this morning.

“You are in danger and need to act immediately to survive,” the CFA warned overnight.

“The safest option is to take shelter indoors immediately. It is too late to leave.”

Bruthen was one of several regions issued evacuation notices overnight. The local fire department warned it didn’t have the capacity to immediately help anyone outside of the town’s centre.

In a Facebook post on Friday night, Bruthen Fire Brigade captain James Nicholas said CFA & DELWP appliances for fire fighting and asset protection “will now NOT be in Bruthen until approx. 6-8am Saturday”.

“Multiple fires across the region have led to reassignment of assets,” he wrote.

“Expect fire activity to our northern perimeter approx. 4-5am.

“Ember attack likely afterwards (at times unknown).”

The latest advice for residents is to leave for the Sale Relief Centre.

“We are physically unable with remaining assets to conduct perimeter defence of the township,” the statement continued.

“That’s why you should leave NOW.”

According to Mr Nicholas, all firefighting appliances and personnel will be withdrawn to the centre of Bruthen to “defend critical infrastructure and preserve life”.

“This will be based on the Bruthen Hall.

“Once again leave NOW for a relief centre and get out of town.

“This is not a decision that I wanted to make, more so needed to make. I encourage you to comply … Keep safe all.”

On Friday, one of the largest evacuations in Australia’s history was underway ahead of hot weather and strong winds that are forecast to worsen devastating wildfires raging across the country.

More than 200 fires were burning, and warnings of extreme danger to come Saturday prompted mass evacuations. Traffic was gridlocked as people fled and firefighters escorted convoys of evacuees as fires threatened to close roads. Navy ships were called in to pluck hundreds of people stranded on beaches.

But not everyone in Mallacoota benefited from the Defence Force’s help. Some of the most vulnerable people there were told they could not be evacuated.

Laura Freeman, 35, has holidayed in Mallacoota for more than two decades. She was staying at a caravan park with her husband and two children, who are aged one and three, when the approaching fire trapped them in the town.

In the ensuing, terrifying hours, Ms Freeman and her family watched the sky turn black and red. They spent some time sheltered in their car, but smoke seeped in and forced them out. Later, stuck indoors with dozens of others, she texted her mother, believing they were not going to make it.

Those conditions would obviously be hard enough to endure as an adult, but Ms Freeman and her husband also had to deal with the stress of keeping their children safe.

At the suggestion of authorities, they wrote an emergency contact number on the kids’ arms with black marker, in case they became separated.

Ms Freeman was relieved when she heard the ADF was going to evacuate the town.

That relief was short-lived. At a community meeting on Thursday, her husband was told the family would not be able to go with the ADF, because anyone on board the ship would have to climb a rope ladder – something the young children couldn’t do.

On top of that, the couple learned aerial extraction would also be unavailable because of the weather conditions.

Ms Freeman’s family ultimately got lucky, as two privately owned “luxury” boats showed up Thursday morning to evacuate them. They’re safe and well now, but if not for the generosity of those strangers, they would still be stuck in Mallacoota.

She said the biggest frustration was their lack of access to accurate information during the ordeal. The lack of power stopped people from charging their phones, and some of the information they did get access to was downright misleading.

“We’d rather have no information than have misleading information, and false hope,” she said.

But Ms Freeman was also struck by the incredible strength of her fellow evacuees.

megan.palin@news.com.au | @Megan_Palin

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