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Vic: Gippsland, Bendigo houses under threat from fires

08 Feb 2009 1:39 AM

MELBOURNE, Feb 8 AAP - More communities and towns were coming under threat of fire in the early hours of Sunday as Victoria's killer bushfires continued to rage across the state.

Police said on Saturday that 14 people had died in infernos, but authorities fear they may find more bodies on Sunday with the toll possibly reaching into the 40s.

"This is an absolute tragedy for the state and we believe the figure may even get worse," Victoria Police Assistant Commissioner Kieran Walshe told reporters late on Saturday night.

"We base that on the fact we're only just getting into these areas now ... to search buildings and properties these have been very, very significant fires ... the figure could get into the 40s."

Firefighters were battling 11 major firefronts across the state early Sunday morning as temperatures in the high 40s and searing winds fanned over 400 blazes on Saturday.

The Country Fire Authority (CFA) issued an urgent warning for towns in Gippsland saying they were under ember attack from the Bunyip Ridge fire.

Tarago, Jindivick West, Jindivick North, Neerim, Neerim South, Neerim East are all experiencing flying embers and heavy smoke.

The 30,000 hectare blaze that spread from Kilmore to Kinglake and killed the 14 people started burning to the north late on Saturday night and is threatening Broadford which sits beside the Hume Highway.

A CFA spokeswoman said homes are being threatened there with several roads closed.

At Bendigo, where around 50 houses were destroyed at Bendigo West on Saturday, homes in the Long Gully and Sparrowhawk Estate area have been damaged.

The CFA said the firefront has been largely contained within a perimeter along Marong Road, Eaglehawk Road, Bracewell Street and Upper California Gully Road.

Gas and electricity to the area has been cut off to prevent leaks.

Bendigo resident Shae Grieve said an ember attack set off grass fires in Eaglehawk.

"I was surprised how quick it was going through the area, it was jumping from house to house," Mr Grieve told Sky News.

"They were grass fires but since the embers blew up, they caught the houses pretty quick."

The Gippsland town of Traralgon was also under threat as were La Trobe Valley power stations as a fire on the eastern fringes of the Strzelecki Ranges spread toward the coast.

Country Fire Authority deputy chief officer Greg Esnouf said there was much work to do.

"We've still got a massive amount of work to do to get these fires under control," Mr Esnouf said.

"These are big fires and they're going to take days and days to get under control."

About 100 patients at Beechworth Hospital in the north-east of the state had to be evacuated because of power cuts.

Some were accommodated at the local nursing home while others were transferred to Wangaratta Hospital.

Victorian Premier John Brumby has described Saturday as "the worst day in our history."

The fires came as Melbourne reached its hottest ever temperature of 46.4 degrees, while nearby Avalon recorded the state's high of 47.9.

Conditions have been described as the worst fire conditions in the state's history.

The Ash Wednesday fires in February, 1983 remain the deadliest bushfire in Australian history. Those fires claimed 47 lives in Victoria and 28 in South Australia, destroyed 2,800 homes in Victoria and burnt out 210,000 hectares, while 383 homes went up in South Australia.