AT LEAST one home was destroyed and frightened residents and workers fled as a fast-moving fire came close to Melbourne’s outer northern suburbs.
The grassfire became an out of control blaze, burning more than 2000 hectares as it headed south from Donnybrook towards urban Epping and Campbellfield.
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Light rain dampens Epping grass fires
Firefighting efforts have been helped along by light rain overnight to contain grass fires around Epping in Melbourne's north.
More than 600 firefighters in 120 trucks came from across Victoria to battle the flames on a hot and gusty day. They were supported by 11 waterbombing aircraft.
ABC Radio reported the Northern Hospital had evacuated a childcare centre on its grounds and shoppers at Epping Plaza were asked to stay indoors.
Three firefighters were assessed for smoke inhalation.
By midnight on Monday, exhausted CFA, MFB and DSE firefighters had contained the fire, but were expected to spend the night tamping out embers and assessing damage. The front was halted near the corner of Hume Freeway and Cooper Street, having progressed along both sides of the freeway. It had been headed for Thomastown.
A relieved Country Fire Authority deputy chief officer Steve Warrington said: ‘‘It was a very dangerous, fast moving fire that had potential to cause significant damage, had it not been for the co ordinated efforts of the Victorian fire agencies.
"We know we saved a number of houses but we know there’s one lost, in the north-eastern sector."
Property developer Robert Scanlon said he had been told by police that three factories in the Northpoint Enterprise Park in Cooper Street, Epping, were feared destroyed. Mr Scanlon had undertaken the major project with another developer, which he said represented years of work.
Residents in Epping and Campbellfield and surrounding suburbs spent the afternoon and evening on high alert.
The CFA issued an emergency warning meaning lives were at risk. They urged residents to activate their fire plans, to leave if it was safe and to monitor radio bulletins.
Igniting about 1pm on Monday near Donnybrook Road, Donnybrook, the fire spread through Wollert towards homes and factories in Epping and Campbellfield.
By 7.30pm firefighters feared the flames would enter suburbia. Part of Cooper Street, Epping, was closed and the Hume Freeway was shut from Sydney Road to the Metropolitan Ring Road.
The City of Whittlesea opened its emergency centre that was previously used for Black Saturday and other residents headed for Epping Plaza shopping centre.
Residents of Aurora Estate, Wollert, endured a frightening afternoon during which they could see flames from the windows of their houses and dense smoke rising above the vacant paddocks and houses.
The grassfire swept past the properties on the edge of the estate, in vacant land on its western edge. On Monday afternoon and evening as many as seven helicopters could be seen flying above the fire, with some of them bombing the blaze.
RAW VISION: Fires approach northern suburbs
Aerial vision shows the extent of flames and smoke in Melbourne's north on Monday, as a fast-moving grass fire burned out of control.
Father of three Raheel Muhammad, of Edenvale Boulevard, said he packed his car with documents and a change of clothes for his children, in preparation to leave if necessary.
"We could see the flames right there, we could see the flames from our windows," he said.
"The flames were really high up,"he said. The fire was just a few hundred metres from his house.
"It was a frightening afternoon," he said.
Local Steve watched the fire from a small hill on the edge of the estate in the late afternoon and early evening. He had rushed home from work to check on his family and house in Aurora Estate.
Steve said that he sent his three children and his girlfriend to a friend’s place, a safe distance away from the blaze on the edge of suburbia.
"It was huge, it was huge. Smoke everywhere, flames everywhere," he said.
- ABOVE: Chris Chambers prepared this time lapse video of the smoke plume as seen from the 11th floor of the Bureau of Meteorology yesterday.
Smoke was reported across Melbourne including the CBD. Traffic in the Epping area ground to a standstill as cars containing people evacuating merged with commuters, and, later, sightseers.
The fast-moving grass fire had headed south into metropolitan Melbourne, fanned by gusty northerly winds.
By 6pm it was heading along Cooper Street, Epping, and threatening homes near Rex Road, Campbellfield, and Edgars Road, Epping.
Victoria’s Fire Services Commissioner Craig Lapsley said roads were jammed with cars. "Roads are gridlocked out in that area," Mr Lapsley told ABC radio. "People are either trying to get out or get home."
Elsewhere, a fire, in the Victoria Valley north of Dunkeld near the Grampians, had burnt 4230 hectares and was on Monday night still out of control. It was feared that a southerly wind change could put nine local properties at risk.
"This complex [fire] includes the fires formerly known as Clutterbucks Road, Jensens Road and Burnt Hut Track," the CFA said.
It had reached the Victoria Valley Road and was spotting up to a kilometre over the road. Firefighters from the CFA, DSE and Parks Victoria were working through the night to protect properties in the area. Residents were put on a "watch and act" warning.
Melbourne on Monday had its sixth consecutive day of 31 degrees or higher temperatures, the longest stretch in 14 years.
While a cool change was on its way, it wasn’t expected to reach the city until sunrise on Tuesday. Temperatures were unlikely to drop below 22 degrees, making for another sweltering night.
The cool change is likely to bring showers and possibly thunderstorms. The Bureau of Meteorology is predicting minimums to remain above 18 degrees until at least Sunday, continuing the trend of above-average temperatures overnight.
Minimum temperatures have been above average every day since February 2 and are averaging 2 degrees above the norm so far for the month, Melissa MacKellar, a meteorologist with Weatherzone. "It’s been more humid than normal so it’s probably felt particularly uncomfortable."
With PETER HANNAM and AAP