Bass Coast Criminal Investigation Unit (CIU) detective Liza Burrows confirmed the blaze is being treated as suspicious, but she says there is no evidence to suggest it is the same offender (or offenders) responsible for the fires which have destroyed multiple vacant homes and sheds in the same area.
“This was a very different type of fire,” Det Burrows said.
“It was daytime and in the middle of bushland – all of the other fires have occurred overnight.
“We’re currently looking at this as a separate incident.”
Det Burrows said the only link between the Tank Hill blaze and other fires is that they occurred roughly in the same area.
She said fire investigators had not discovered any accelerants, saying the offender had likely used available materials.
Over 180 firefighters from around Gippsland and south-east Melbourne converged on Wonthaggi and surrounds to control Saturday’s blaze, which took over three hours to bring under control.
At one point, there were extreme fears the fire had the capacity to spread to nearby Harmers Haven and Cape Paterson, which had the potential to turn what was already a worrying scrub fire into a major catastrophe.
Up to 10 tankers were sent to both nearby towns with strike teams on the ready in case the situation worsened.
Thankfully, the blaze was contained to Tank Hill, with emergency services being praised throughout the community for fighting valiantly to save dozens of homes which came under threat.
During the first hour of the fire (12.30pm onwards), several homes and units in Longwall Court, Reed Crescent and Tank Hill Terrace were in immediate danger, with evacuation orders immediately issued.
As firefighters and water bombers made progress, the emergency warning issued early in the afternoon was downgraded to a ‘watch and act’, and residents breathed a sigh of relief.
There were no injuries and the only property damaged was the back fence of two Longwall Court residents.
‘Knew it was going to be bad’
Wonthaggi CFA captain Kim O’Connor woke early Saturday morning feeling uneasy.
Conditions were eerily similar to Black Saturday, with a forecast top temperature of 42 degrees and strong winds.
“You just knew it was going to be a bad day,” he said.
Unfortunately, his fears were realised when his pager went off at 12.33pm, with a resident reporting smoke billowing out of Tank Hill Reserve.
He was first at the scene, arriving just minutes before a Wonthaggi tanker with volunteers turned up.
“It was just a small amount of smoke coming out of the bush and it was actually hard to find at first,” he recalled.
“When I did find it, the fire was very small – about three metres square in size.
“I walked back out to where our first truck had just arrived and told the guys we’d need some knapsacks and hand tools to put it out, because it was a long way in with the hose.
“In less than three minutes, though, the fire had climbed a tree, the wind got hold of it and it took off.
“It went from nothing to something significant in a very short amount of time.”
Suddenly, not only was the reserve ablaze, but spot fires were appearing in nearby paddocks.
Cpt O’Connor called for more support, and suddenly more than 20 tankers were on the way.
By the height of the fire, crews from as far afield as Warragul, Berwick and Cockatoo were arriving to assist.
“Due to the weather conditions and prolonged dry spell, we made sure we hit the fire fast and hard,” he added.
A block of units in Longwall Court were some of the first homes threatened, with firefighters frantically dousing flames in backyard gardens.
“It came through bushland really quickly and there isn’t much of a barrier where the bush abuts those properties,” Cpt O’Connor said.
“Volunteers put themselves between the fire and the units and managed to contain it.”
Cpt O’Connor said Saturday’s emergency was the worst grass and scrub fire Wonthaggi has experienced in “at least 20 years.”
“We did some modelling of what the fire would do if we weren’t fighting it, and it definitely would have hit Cape Paterson by 7pm that night,” he said.
Air support critical
Incident controller Craig Ferguson said water bombers played a vital role in ensuring the fire didn’t spread further south.
“They were critical,” he said.
“The aircraft slowed the fire down and allowed ground crews to get in the bush and put it out properly.”
Mr Ferguson said one chopper arrived from the Latrobe Valley, while another flew all the way from Moorabbin.
“We had one more large air tanker on the way during the afternoon but we turned it back around once we had the fire under control,” he added.
Mr Ferguson attended a community meeting at Wonthaggi Workmen’s Club on Saturday evening, while crews continued to monitor the smouldering bush well into the night.
He said that if the meeting proved anything, it was that many residents were unprepared for Saturday’s emergency.
“There was a lot of concern from residents about how defendable their homes are,” Mr Ferguson continued.
“We spent a lot of time talking about how this was a close call and a warning to residents about how quickly these situations can develop.
“It’s only the beginning of summer, and if property owners don’t already have a fire plan, it’s time to get one.”
Mr Ferguson said he asked the 400 meeting attendees to raise their hand if they had a fire plan in place.
“Only 20 per cent of people put their hand up,” he said.
“The stark reality is that this (fire) was a wake-up call.”
Both Cpt O’Conner and Mr Ferguson praised all volunteers for their efforts, as well as the community for its assistance.
“The police were fantastic with their traffic management and the public was awesome,” Cpt O’Connor said.
“Everyone was giving the guys ice and water when we were flat out and they were there to keep asking ‘is there anything I can do to help?’
“We received platter after platter of food from Subway too, it was bloody brilliant!”
While they concede it might have nothing to do with the fire whatsoever, detectives are seeking information on a makeshift cubby/hut which was ‘under construction’ in Tank Hill reserve.
Det Liza Burrows said the partially constructed hut was destroyed in the fire, but police would like to speak to whoever has been in the bush in recent weeks.
The hut is described as five metres long and two metres wide, made using available fallen timber around the site.
Anyone with information regarding the hut, or the fire itself, is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or Wonthaggi Police on 5671 4100.