THE COMMUNITY of Hepburn Shire joined forces during the frightening threat of a bushfire on Hepburn-Mannings Road at the weekend.
The town was eerily quiet on Monday, with all kindergartens, childcare centres and schools in the Hepburn region closed, as the community recovered from the shock of the bushfire, which burned through 28 hectares of land and got as close to three metres from some residences.
The cool change brought relief for Country Fire Authority volunteers on Sunday night, allowing firefighters to consolidate control lines and reduce the danger the fire posed to the township.
The fire was subsequently downgraded from emergency to advice level after the fire was declared as contained, with residents then able to return to their properties.
Firefighters had the blaze under control on Monday evening but will continue to work on the remains of the fire for a number of days.
Incident Controller and First Lieutenant at Hepburn Fire Brigade, Michael Yanner, said it was believed the fire was ignited by a band of lightning strikes during a storm above Elevated Plains on Wednesday evening.
“I called six tankers to the scene that night and I had more tankers there monitoring the area the following day,” he said.
It is believed the smouldering was fanned by the wind before re-igniting into vicious flames on Saturday evening.
“The ground is just so dry at the moment,” Mr Yanner said.
He immediately called ten tankers and two strike teams and issued an emergency warning for the area as the fire continued to spot and spread with the wind behind it. He estimated there were at least 100 crew, including police, CFA volunteers and Forest Fire Management, turning up to assist that night.
Residents awoke to emergency crews knocking at their doors and advising them to leave in the early hours of Sunday morning.
“We didn’t want people to be in the area because the fire was quite unpredictable.”
The progress of the fire was slowed by dozens of fire trucks on the ground as well as six aircraft, including three water bombers, who used fire retardant to suffocate the flames.
Mr Yanner said the fire got within a few metres of an accommodation property at Elevated Plains.
“If something starts this close to houses we don’t hesitate to get a lot of tankers on the ground. But we also needed a lot of aircraft. They used everything they had and bombed [the fire] quite heavily.”
He commended the compliance of residents who agreed to evacuate their properties, but said some chose to remain at home, while others crossed containment lines to take photos of the fire, making it difficult for firefighters to do their job.
Mr Yanner said crews would continue to patrol the area for the next three to four weeks until the region experiences significant rain fall.
It was the first big night for The Palais Hepburn following its re-opening to the public, when the managers made the decision to evacuate the venue mid-performance at about 9.30pm on Saturday night.
“Generally people were nervous,” venue manager Richard Fanale said.
Mr Fanale said people had been walking in and out of the venue to check how close the fire had come during the first half of the show.
He said businesses usually waited for an evacuation, but they wanted their clients to enjoy the show another evening, without the feelings of unease caused by a bushfire.
“We just thought, all in all, that it would be best for people to enjoy the show without that tension of whether to go or whether to stay,” he said.
“It was basically our first full house ticketed event and so everybody was super excited. It has been a lot of time and hard work getting it [The Palais] to this point. For it to be the first one – and to have to can it halfway – was quite a difficult decision to make.”
He said huge orange flames could be seen in the distance after the venue was evacuated.
“A tree would go up and you would hear a massive bang – like a combustion. It looked spectacular but was scary. Visually it was incredible – the colours – I had never seen anything like that before.”
Like many businesses in Hepburn, The Palais lost valuable revenue due to it closing at the weekend.
“We lost a lot of money because we had to close down. It was a huge loss to make the decision to close that night while other businesses, like accommodation and restaurants, lost a day’s trading on Sunday.”
Daylesford resident Sheree said many people were still shaken up after the weekend’s events.
Her friend Bec came to stay with her after she saw the fires burning near her Hepburn home on Saturday. Sheree said the fires reminded her of the 2009 bushfires and gave her quite a scare.
“The heat was just so hot around the time they upped the warning for Daylesford. It was 38 [degrees] and later in the afternoon when the humidity really kicked in and the wind picked up, I started to get really nervous,” Sheree said. “They were very similar to the 2009 bushfires in their severity.”
Sheree said she didn’t have an exact fire plan, but has two boxes packed in case of an emergency, which contain all of her daughter’s baby things and their important documents.
“I have two boxes in my house so if ever I need to get out of here, those two boxes go in my car and we just drive away.”
She said some people were getting frustrated that the Vic Emergency app was not being updated as much as they would have liked on Sunday night, but that by using multiple means of information, like the CFA website and Hepburn Shire Emergency Management page, people could stay informed.
Sheree applauded the work of the region’s firefighters and said she was appreciative that schools were closed on Monday as it gave people a chance to mentally recover.
“There is an emotional toll and we all just feel drained,” she said. “We can all settle back in this afternoon.”
Businesses and accommodation services opened their doors to those who had to evacuate their homes, including elderly residents of Hepburn House, while other people opened their homes and paddocks to pets, horses and cattle, while others offered transportation.
A relief centre was opened at Victoria Park, Daylesford while members and volunteers of Hepburn Football Netball Club kept the CFA members fighting the fires nourished with barbeques.
Residents were kept informed about events with a community meeting on Sunday evening and a community barbeque on Monday night.
Central Highlands Water has confirmed that the town’s water supply has not been affected and is safe to consume.
General Manager Customer and Community Jacqueline ONeill said Central Highlands Water was providing recycled treated water from their plant at Shepherds Flat.
“The water remains safe to drink and during the peak of the incident on Sunday, there was no interruption to water supply. Our key reservoir and groundwater supplies remain safe and were not impacted by the firefighting efforts.”
Ms ONeill said irrigation was used in supporting firefighting efforts in the bushfire and properties nearby should seek advice from Hepburn Shire Council in relation to private rainwater tank usage.
During the fire, ash or fire retardant could have made its way into tanks in the vicinity of the fire. Hepburn Shire Council’s Secondary Impact Assessment team is currently visiting properties within the vicinity of the fire and can provide a service to remove ash, empty tanks and refill with drinking water.
“Please refer any concerns or questions to Council for further advice,” Ms ONeill said.
“CHW was proud to be a key member of the team with DELWP (Department of Land, Water and Planning) and provide staff and resources to support the needs of the incident controller in the response to the fires.”