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On Victoria's bushfire front

Bushfires in Victoria's east blaze out of control as one man dies, homes are lost and thousands of hectares are burnt through.

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VICTORIA Police believe the deadly blaze that claimed one life, destroyed more than 50,000 hectares of land and razed several Gippsland properties may have been deliberately lit.

Arson squad detectives are focusing on a camping spot near the township of Aberfeldy, where the fire began at about 11.30am on Thursday, before strong winds fanned the blaze on Friday afternoon.

As fire crews battled to bring the blaze under control on Saturday, arson investigators appealed for witnesses who may have camped along Donnelly Creek Road, south of Aberfeldy. Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley also urged anyone with information to assist police. Because of the death, an arson investigation is routine.

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Mr Lapsley said arson attacks were usually premeditated and often involved a high level of sophistication.

''There is a big difference between a kid who is just playing with fire and someone who deliberately lights fires,'' Mr Lapsley said. ''People that are arsonists are the ones who spend time thinking about it, planning it. An arsonist will sit at home, or in a shed, playing with devices, planning how to light fires.''

Arson squad detectives are particularly interested in any photographs or video that may have been taken as residents and holiday-makers evacuated the area on Thursday.

Fires from Justin Crawley's property.
Justin (Left) watches the fire with mate Andy Forbes after finishing dinner at Justin's Property near Hariettville Click for more photos

Victorian Bushfires in January

Fires from Justin Crawley's property. Justin (Left) watches the fire with mate Andy Forbes after finishing dinner at Justin's Property near Hariettville Photo: Justin McManus

Cooler conditions and a shift in wind direction to the north-east helped more than 500 firefighters on Saturday, while 14 aircraft dumped water on steep terrain at the northern and southern fronts.

By nightfall, the fire spanned more than 40 kilometres from Aberfeldy in the west to the Avon Wilderness Park to the east.

But most towns seemed to have averted disaster, with residents of Seaton and Glenmaggie allowed to return to their homes on Saturday night after many decided to evacuate on Friday afternoon.

Several fire crews maintained a presence at Thomson Dam, while the township of Licola to the east remained isolated, with the main road still cut off.

Licola general store owner Mary Winter said the immediate danger seemed to have passed, although more than 20 CFA officers were still stationed in the town.

''It's been cooler and the winds have calmed down. We have been through this before in 2006 and we've implemented the same precautions. We're just hoping they work again,'' Ms Winter said.

State Control Centre spokesman Lee Miezis said the fire had slowed down considerably, but he warned Gippsland residents to remain vigilant.

Mr Miezis said firefighters would continue back-burning in a bid to contain the blaze before weather conditions deteriorated later in the week.

''The biggest issue is that it will continue to warm up, with Thursday and Friday expected to be hot and with more strong winds as the change comes through,'' he said.

Mr Lapsley said the recent hot weather had provided ideal conditions for the deadly fire to take hold.

''The bit we've learned from is the speed at which this fire at Aberfeldy ran into the forest. The bush is dry, very dry, and the elevated fuels - the tree-height fuels - are allowing fires to travel very quickly. Faster than normal forest fires,'' Mr Lapsley said.

■chouston@theage.com.au

■You can call Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or visit crimestoppers.com.au.

cfa.vic.gov.au