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Vic: Wind change a worry for firefighters

By Catherine Best, Greg Roberts and Katie Bradford
03 Mar 2009 8:52 PM

MELBOURNE, March 3 AAP - Victoria's bushfire defences held up in the face of a gale-force onslaught on Tuesday, but winds associated with a gusty westerly change could hamper fire crews overnight.

While the worst fears of emergency service authorities had failed to materialise by 6pm (AEDT) on Tuesday, Victorian premier John Brumby warned Victorians to brace themselves.

"This is going to be a significant storm event and we've done well today," Mr Brumby said.

"But the message ... from all of the authorities is ... the worst is yet to come and the next few hours are really crucial.

"We've got through today, all things considered, very well indeed.

"There is a little bit of rain forecast and with a bit of luck if we can get through tonight and tomorrow we might be able to put a bookend on some of these fires.

"But we still have a very high risk period."

Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) spokesman Mike Goode said at 8.30pm (AEDT) that the change had not yet fully crossed four major firegrounds east of Melbourne.

"Winds are gusting around 70km/h," he told AAP.

"Immediately after the change it is not as strong as we anticipated but we believe over the next 12 hours or so those winds will strengthen over 70km/h."

A line of showers is crossing the state behind the change, with 5mm to 10mm likely to fall in some areas.

"It has certainly been a help to us and if it continues to follow through, it will be beneficial," Mr Goode said.

New fires flared around the state on Tuesday as wind gusts of up to 120km/h blew in from the northwest.

But all were kept within containment lines reinforced over the past week by thousands of firefighters and emergency service workers.

A few fires flared in the devastated areas of Kinglake and Kinglake West, but the Country Fire Authority (CFA) said they were quickly controlled.

So strong were the winds around the vast blazes in the Yarra Ranges north of Melbourne, firefighters were pulled out of the fire's path, placing their faith in the containment measures.

As firefighters regrouped and residents of affected areas put their fire plans into action, government and emergency services defended Monday's unprecedented warnings of possible disaster.

Emergency Services Commissioner Bruce Esplin defended the early warnings delivered by sms messages to five million mobile phones in Victoria, denying it was "scaremongering".

"We would be totally irresponsible if we did not warn people on the basis of the forecast we were given," Mr Esplin said.

The four major fires that have been burning for weeks - the Kilmore-Murrindindi North and Kilmore-Murrindindi South complexes, Bunyip Ridge and Wilsons Promontory - are still defying efforts to control them.

Firefighters were forced back from the front of the Bunyip Ridge fire in Gippsland on Tuesday afternoon, due to the hot strong wind.

"Because of the weather conditions they had to move back, it was too dangerous to be there," the spokeswoman said.

The firefighters remain nearby and were keeping a "watching brief" on the fire, which is so far 26,200 hectares in size.

The massive Murrindindi complex fire still burning in the Yarra Ranges region since the fatal February 7 fires remains the state's most troublesome blaze.

Thousands of residents within range of the fire have left their homes and hundreds of firefighters, including those brought in from the United States, New Zealand and NSW, have been removed from the fire front.

"We're having trees come down, power lines coming down, branches off trees," said CFA divisional commander Brian Halit.

"We can't let our strike teams go out in the bush, it's too dangerous, we can't afford to take the risk because of our concerns for their safety with the amount of debris flying everywhere."

Mr Halit said despite the expected conditions, authorities remained hopeful of getting through the night without a major outbreak.