“We’re coming out with this advice now, we want to give people time to leave East Gippsland now.” He said if residents can stay with friends and family west of Bairnsdale, they should also leave.
East Gippsland Shire mayor John White stopped short of asking tourists not to come to the area.
“We hope people use their commonsense,” he said. “That’s the main thing in these situations. They are all grown ups, they can make their own choices, and hopefully they make the right choices.”
He said people along the coast “should be perfectly safe, so hopefully the tourism operators don’t get hurt too badly”.
“We certainly don’t want anyone to be injured, or put their lives in danger.”
The fires and conditions came at a crucial time for the area’s economy, and businesses relied on that income, he said.
“They set themselves up for the Christmas holiday rush and they’re going to be devastated, but this is something that just happened.
“And no one’s to blame: lightning strikes caused the beginnings of the fires and the forest is so dry that the fire just can’t be controlled,” Cr White said.
“It’s very hot, we’re in the middle of three and a half years of drought, there’s smoke everywhere and it’s not very pleasant.”
Coastal towns in particular would suffer from reduced tourism, including Lakes Entrance, Marlo, Cape Conran and Mallacoota: the latter wasn’t under threat “but if the road traffic is restricted, it just means that people won’t get there”.
Cr White said firefighting crews were pulling back from fighting the bushfire and looking to asset protection for Monday.
He was not sure whether the New Year’s Eve fireworks at Lakes Entrance would go ahead, as a decision hadn’t been made.
Cr White said Monday in the area was forecast to be “an extremely hot day, and winds from the north, which is the worst direction because the fires are north of all the coastal plains, but at this stage not impacting any of the farming areas, but it just depends what happens with spotovers.”
The Great Alpine Road was closed north of Bruthen to Ensay, which meant those wishing to get to Omeo needed to come from Bright, and the Bonang Highway was closed just out of Orbost.
“This means the only way out for residents in small communities such as Bendoc would be through New South Wales, for example to Delegate and Bombala.”
Cr White said many towns along Tambo Valley were on ‘watch-and-act’ because the forest was alight all round them. “At this stage they’re OK and there’s plenty of resources in place”.
The council had set up refuge points, including in Delegate, NSW because the road to the closest Victorian town, Orbost, was closed.
Evacuation points were being prepared at Lakes Entrance, Bairnsdale, Cann River and Orbost.
He said campers at Buchan Caves were asked to leave on Saturday, and those who couldn’t or didn’t want to return home could camp at a park in Bairnsdale.
The advice for East Gippsland follows a similar decision on Sunday morning by organisers of the Falls Music Festival at Lorne, who told the 9000 people camping at the event this weekend that they must pack up and leave the site. After just one night, organisers cancelled the event due to the extreme fire risk ahead.
Secret Sounds Co CEO Jessica Ducrou said she was “gutted” to make the call on Sunday morning, but had to prioritise the safety of patrons, artists and staff.
More to come
Tammy Mills is a Crime Reporter for The Age.
Carolyn Webb is a reporter for The Age.