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Friday morning bushfire update: Licola now isolated

Lee Meizis from the CFA gives a 7.30am update on two bushfire emergency warnings for the areas of Glenmaggie and nearby Licola, which has now been isolated by the flames.

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♦ Police have confirmed the body of a man has been found in a burnt-out vehicle in Seaton in Gippsland about 5pm. The body is yet to be identified.

♦ CFA and DSE firefighters are battling to control a fire in Glenmaggie and the surrounding area.

♦ A bushfire about 48,000 hectares in size is still expected to affect the town of Licola, about 254 kilometres east of Melbourne, where 10 people are gathered with no escape.

Firefighters waterbomb the blaze near Dawson.

Firefighters waterbomb the blaze near Dawson. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

♦ The fire threat has receded in the Glenmaggie-Coongulla area as firefighters begin to bring the blaze under control. The CFA has downgraded its warning level for that district from Watch and Act to Advice.

Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said a group of Licola residents had chosen to stay in the township and were being assisted by about 30 firefighters, who had driven to the area on Friday morning.

The fire was originally estimated to hit the town by 6pm, however, a wind change has slowed its progress and downgraded the threat.

Locals gather near the firefront at Dawson.

Locals gather near the firefront at Dawson. Photo: Michael Clayton-Jones

The residents are still stranded in the town but a CFA spokeswoman said the fire was now moving slowly towards the area.

Mr Lapsley said there was still no escape for the residents, with Licola having its only road in and out of the community cut off by the fire. He said there was a dirt track that headed north towards Mount Hotham, but that was not an option for escape.

"It’s too late to move now and to move north would be too difficult with the type of road and terrain it would be," Mr Lapsley said.

Bushfires in South Gippsland near the town of Glenmaggie. Click for more photos

The state ablaze

Bushfires in South Gippsland near the town of Glenmaggie. Photo: Wayne Taylor

"It’s a sensible decision for those 10 to stay at Licola and stay with the CFA trucks."

Mr Lapsley expected the fire to burn for about two weeks as it charges further into deep bushland.

"The fire is looking to be a campaign fire, There is no doubt about that," he said.

Residents of the town of Licola in Victoria's east may be forced to leave their homes to escape a fast-moving bushfire. View Larger Map

"We are moving into some remote and in particular deep-seated bush environments, which are difficult for anyone to get into.

"We can’t get ground crews in, so it will be use of aircraft and trying to pick up on old wood tracks that were used in the logging days."

Mr Lapsley said he was surprised at how quickly the fire had grown. On Thursday night emergency services expected the blaze to burn 4000 hectares but by 6am on Friday the fire had grown to 12,000 hectares and more than 40,000 hectares by 3pm.

"It’s been burning very much like a grass fire in forest conditions," he said.

"That is the elevated fuels that have regrown since the 2006 bushfires are light in structure, very dry due to the conditions we have had and have burnt more like a grass fire than a traditional forest fire, which has seen fire move very fast through the area."

Mr Lapsley said five homes had been lost: four holiday houses and one permanent residence.

At Coongulla, CFA crews are patrolling regularly to make sure embers from the west side of Lake Glenmaggie do not start spot fires near their town.

Coongulla Brigade captain Geoff Lynch said one ember started a fire that burnt for two acres, and may have only been controlled because crews saw it quickly and three aircraft were overhead and ready to douse the flames.

He said if any fires started and his crews, which include groups from South Gippsland and Drouin, failed to stop them, the fire could burn for days.

"We’ve just got to keep doing patrols because our visibility is just gone," Mr Lynch said.

"It’s all we can do, because if any spot fires start and get past us, it could burn all the way to Bairnsdale.

"It’s so dry up here, we’ve had probably four months without rain."

Four houses have been lost in the Seaton and Glenmaggie area, with one house lost at Dawson. There were reports of at least two more houses being on fire at Glenmaggie Point.

As many as 10 houses at Glenmaggie, Seaton and Dawson have been destroyed as the bushfire marches north-east.

The cemetery and a caravan park at Glenmaggie have also been affected, but fire services have been unable to assess the damage as the fire grows to more than 25,000 hectares fueled by winds that show no sign of abating.

Glenmaggie Caravan Park proprietor Glen Coles said the two southernmost parks he owned appeared to be safe, but he had lost at least one caravan in his park to the north.

About 100 campers had evacuated from about 2am on Friday, with some regular campers staying to lend a hand.

"I know the park up there has been impacted, but I don’t know what’s survived," Mr Coles said.

"I can’t get there. There’s a few houses close to it, but I’ve got no clue about what houses are gone. We’ve just been concentrating on this."

He said campers had received SMS warnings, and he commended the CFA and DSE for their help protecting the parks.

About 1pm on Friday, minutes after Mr Coles spoke to Fairfax Media, flames threatened to jump the Heyfield-Jamieson Road and enter another section of his caravan park.

Firefighters kept the flames, which reached more than 10 metres high, from crossing the road, as Mr Coles and campers looked on.

Each gust of south-west wind flicked the flames higher, and a small spot fire broke out on the west of the road but was quickly extinguished.

Mr Coles, who has operated the park for 18 years, said fires in 2006 did not get closer than 1.5 kilometres.

Licola residents were told at 6.30am on Friday it was too late to leave. Earlier, 61 children and 15 adults were evacuated overnight from the Licola Wilderness Village campsite.

The affected towns face the prospect of spot fires occurring, where embers jump from the main fire and spark new blazes.

Mary Winter, from the Licola General Store, said this morning residents were putting fire plans in place with the town cut off.

‘‘We are just bunkering down, waiting for the onslaught,’’ she said.

Adam Wake, camp operations manager at the Licola Wilderness Village, told the ABC there were about 20 people left in the town.

A CFA volunteer fighting the fire on the Heyfield-Seaton Road said it had destroyed thousands of hectares of farmland.

Richard Dennis, speaking as a hay shed smouldered behind him, said he thought most houses had been saved, but he was gravely concerned about the impact of the wind change.

"We woke up at 2.30 [am] and she was on our doorstop," Mr Dennis said.

"At Seaton and Dawson, we managed to save most of the houses, but only just."

Further east, a caller to ABC Radio said there were two houses on fire near him at Glenmaggie Point, with no firefighters in sight.

Lake Glenmaggie was covered in thick smoke, the eastern bank unable to be seen from the west.

A fire front south of Dawson was repeatedly doused from the air as the fire raced north-east.

The wind change arrived before the fire had an impact on Cowwarr.

Thirteen helicopters are fighting the fire, including ‘Elvis’.

Alison Acres, from the Timberline general store in Heyfield, said three people came in to the store on Friday morning saying they had lost their homes.

‘‘It’s pretty dark here, it’s pretty scary actually,’’ she told radio station 3AW. ‘‘We’ve had alerts going since 2.30 this morning because we’ve been under ember attack, with fires striking up all around.

‘‘We have a little glimpse of light [from the sun rising] Traralgon way, and a little glimpse of light to our right but we’re under a very, very black Doomsday cloud at the moment.

‘‘We’ve got a lot of ash and leaves and debris falling from the sky.’’

She said there were reports of properties destroyed and the closest fire to Heyfield had struck about 2.5kms from the town.

‘‘We’ve had locals coming in saying they’ve lost their houses already. I’ve had three in the past 40 minutes come in and say they’ve lost their homes [in Seaton, a town of 215], so it’s pretty scary,’’ she said.

Ms Acres said she had not left because the store was supplying fuel for the CFA trucks.

Jeremiah, at the Commercial Hotel in Heyfield, said it was known that houses had gone in Seaton.

‘‘We’re running around like flies here. We’ve got a lot of people come in from Heyfield, Seaton and Coongulla – they’ve just been removed from the area,’’ he told 3AW.

‘‘We know that some houses have gone in Seaton; the people that have come in here have got out before the fires.’’

Residents in Maffra, Sale, Rosedale, Stratford and between Cowwarr and Briagolong have been told not to phone triple-0 unless they can see flames.

Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster James Taylor said hot weather overnight combined with gale-force winds forecast to hit the region on Friday morning were concerning.

A total fire ban has been declared for the West and South Gippsland, north east, northern country and East Gippsland districts for Friday.

♦ Low-interest loans will be made available to Victorians significantly affected by recent bushfires, the state Federal and State Governments have said.

The loans, of up to $200,000, will be available for eligible primary producers, small businesses and not-for-profit organisations affected by the Chepstowe-Carngham fire near Ballarat last week.

They are in addition to the emergency relief assistance and the emergency re-establishment assistance announced following these fires.

With Stephen Cauchi, Adam Carey and AAP