By CAITLIN CROWLEY & KATE BANVILLE
A COOL change and possible showers are expected to give exhausted Darling Downs fire crews some reprieve after a hellish week which saw lives and properties lost as ferocious fires burned out of control.
Hot, dry and windy conditions fanned flames which triggered emergency warnings for residents around Tara, Kogan and Wieambilla again yesterday afternoon as residents who’d fled fires near Millmerran returned to their homes to assess the damage.
Dry lightning strikes during storms Wednesday night helped ignite several blazes including one at Halliford, 50km west of Dalby, with a warning to leave the area immediately issued Thursday afternoon.
As of late yesterday there were 79 active bushfires across Queensland with a fire ban in place for most of the state, including the Southern Downs, Western Downs, Goondiwindi, Maranoa, and Balonne local government areas.
In the state’s far north residents of Mutchilba, a rural farming township west of Mareeba, were urged to seek shelter immediately as a potentially deadly, fast-moving fire raged toward Price Creek Road Thursday afternoon.
It’s the second blaze to threaten farms in the agricultural region in a matter of weeks.
To the west, fires continued to burn near Mount Isa amid scorching temperatures. The region experienced several days of 40 degree heat.
A fire warning remained in place there late Thursday afternoon with QFES warning that major roads or highways may be impacted, including Barkly Highway between Breakaway and Lake Julius Road.
For the first time in North West’s history, a water bomber was also in use to assist graziers and crews on the ground as authorities warn of extreme fire conditions expected to remain in place on Friday.
At least three of the fast-moving fires were a result of vehicle parts coming into contact with the notoriously combustible spinifex grass lining the Barkly Highway near Mount Isa, prompting a warning to drivers to limit travel where possible and carry out regular checks on vehicles.
Superintendent Peter Hollier of Queensland’s Rural Fire Service said additional crews had been redispersed across the state to bolster firefighting efforts.
“Fatigue is certainly being managed and over the last number of days we’ve increased the capacity that we’ve provided out to a number of those fires,” Hollier said.
“Where we take opportunities to rest, get some respite, and then rotate the crews appropriately.”
For residents of the Tara and Wieambilla communities, it remains a natural disaster environment with hundreds of people displaced while fire crews continued to try and contain destructive fires overnight.
Queensland Police Assistant Commissioner Ben Marcus said an initial evacuation centre set up in Tara has since been moved to a larger facility in Dalby where there was better air quality.
“In terms of evacuations, we have a total of 267 people in two evacuation centres in Dalby and Chinchilla,” Marcus said.
“Limit your travel to that which is absolutely necessary.”
The Tara community is mourning the loss of two community members as a result of the fires.
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A body found near a dam on a Tara property has been identified as Ulrich Widawski, while a 73-year-old woman who’d suffered a medical episode which was not related to the fires has been identified as NSW resident Glenda Chapman.
Her son, Brett Coleman, told The Courier-Mail his mother is believed to have had a heart attack while attempting to evacuate.
“She has been there a month, visiting family, she was there for a holiday and she dropped to the ground,” he said.
“She was a great grandmother of two beautiful girls and a grandmother of ten.
“She was my mum, she looked after her kids, she was funny, we were very very close.”
The bushfire threat south of Toowoomba around Millmerran Downs, Cypress Gardens, Millmerran Woods and Captains Mountain was downgraded Wednesday afternoon, with residents who had been warned to leave the area earlier in the week advised they could return with caution.
One family has been left homeless while several others are counting the costs of sheds and other property which was destroyed.
The community response has been swift with Millmerran Village Caravan Park becoming a collection point for donations.
“The community has been amazing – we had our first truck delivery from Toowoomba today and we are also now in talks about assisting Tara with replenishing their town as well,” owner Rochelle Hinks told the Caller.
“We can’t do any big items – there’s nowhere for the big items to go anyway – but all the little items, toiletries, towels, I’m not going to be turning them away.
“If they’ve got stuff they can donate to the community either here, or for Tara, they’re more than welcome to drop it off to us and we’ll get it to them.”
A community meeting was held at The Pines near Millmerran late yesterday, offering residents an update on the situation from fire crews and advice on further precautions they could take given the hot and dry conditions forecast into summer.
Toowoomba Mayor Geoff McDonald said while QFES had advised that the fires near Millmerran Downs were burning in containment lines, the situation was a reminder for residents to stay informed about changeable conditions.
“While conditions eased over Wednesday night, Council is maintaining a presence in the area with the evacuation centre at the Millmerran Showgrounds, water tankers and other equipment to help fire authorities,” McDonald said.
“Fire authorities have advised residents it is safe to return to their homes with caution, but there is a considerable smoke hazard on roads in the affected area.
“No properties are presently in danger, but it is imperative that residents stay informed about the latest conditions. While a caravan and some shed structures have been lost; thankfully there have been no injuries reported.
“Council’s Local Disaster Management Group is monitoring the situation and liaising with emergency services and will advise of any changes in conditions.”
Council is encouraging members of the public who want to help those who’ve been impacted, to make donations through GIVIT’s Queensland Bushfire Appeal.