Blaze ‘races up hill’

January 10, 2018

Sunday’s grass fire in Winton was particularly frightening for the Connor family, after the blaze ignited on their farm.

The O'Connors could only watch helplessly as the CFA worked to save the family home.

Sunday’s grass fire in Winton was particularly frightening for the Connor family, after the blaze ignited on their farm.

A wildfire fanned by heat and strong winds trapped the Connor family in their Winton home during the weekend.

And the firefighters who brought it under control had no doubt the only reason the home in which the family sheltered did not go up in the flames — possibly taking them with it — was it had been so well prepared for the Australian summer.

Sophie Connor knew the house had been fireproofed, but she and her parents David and Wendy Webster were still relieved when the CFA units — in the end it involved 45 crews and four helicopters working into the night — arrived.

Sunday’s 110ha grassfire began about 2pm when a tractor accidentally ignited the dry grass it was cutting.

It started small, but spread with frightening speed — Sophie said it seemed to ‘‘race up the hill’’ towards their home.

Police cordoned off the area while CFA units from as far away as Shepparton, Mansfield and Tatura rushed to quell the blaze before it threatened homes.

Some firefighters did not return home until 9am on Monday.

And the job is not over. Thermal imaging from helicopters will be used until the start of the weekend to identify any remaining hot spots or heavily-wooded areas that could reignite.

Sophie said she was still amazed at how quickly everything changed — certain the fire would not spread because there was no wind when it was first seen.

‘‘We were about to go waterskiing when we saw the fire in the paddock,’’ she said.

‘‘My parents had already called 000 and thought the CFA would quickly get it under control with a portable unit.’’

Then the first gust of wind drove it across the paddock and into the gum trees where it really took off.

‘‘I’m very grateful for the CFA to come on a Sunday and very grateful for the volunteers,’’ Sophie said.

‘‘It is so frightening, when you see it on telly, and then all of a sudden it’s happening to you,’’ she said.

Wangaratta CFA operations manager Stewart Kreltszheim said if the Connor family had not been so well prepared for a fire, the outcome could have been tragic.

‘‘From all indications they were well protected with the right vegetation and had obviously had conversations about their preparedness, and the result was a really good one as the fire went around their property,’’ Mr Kreltszheim said.

‘‘From someone who’s been in the CFA for 25 years it’s great to see communities get prepared like that.’’

Sophie said fortunately no-one was hurt in the fire, but they lost a shed and two cars as well as infrastructure including water pumps — and a significant amount of garden.

‘‘Our house was safe thanks to the fact we had a lot of clearance and green grass,’’ she said.

‘‘A couple of CFA people came up to us afterwards and said if we didn’t have all that our house would’ve gone, too.’’

Gliding Club of Victoria president Jonathan McAliece just happened to be flying a tow plane over the scene at the time the fire started.

He said less than 20 minutes after the first smoke the flames ‘‘took off’’ over roads and spread exponentially.

‘‘I could see there were a few farms down there, so I knew people would have called it in, but it really did shock me how fast it grew,’’ he said.

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