Stay home. It’s too late to go. That emergency warning just after 4pm Monday was the first many Crib Point residents heard about their homes being under threat from a fire in scrubland to the township’s north.
A blaze near the Esplanade had been brought under control about a one hour earlier, without any loss of property.
That fire was almost identical to one a week earlier in the same area which police believe was deliberately lit.
However, it was the fire which quickly spread across 64 hectares on land bounded by Stony Point Rd and Cresswell and Cooma streets that saw residents told to stay home and take whatever precautions they could.
The warning was extended to residents at Stony Point and naval training base, HMAS Cerberus.
With temperatures in the mid-30s and fresh wind from the north, the fire spread so quickly that the emergency alert from the CFA on ABC radio was the first and only one issued, although many residents had by that time managed to leave the town for safety.
The CFA quickly mobilised 22 fire trucks, 100 firefighters and called in three fire-bombing aircraft in a bid to bring the fire under control before a predicted wind change.
At 4.45 deputy chief fire officer Steve Warrington told ABC radio that the wind was expected to swing the fire back on itself within 15 to 20 minutes, again threatening property owners who may have thought the fire had passed them by.
He said an expected wind change – from north to south – would lower the temperature for fire fighters but probably “turn the fire, putting pressure on houses in King St”.
He said the air crane (Elvis) was on the scene assisting 20 trucks.
“We are mounting an aggressive attack on the fire in scrub and grassland,” Mr Warrington said.
He said people have a heightened awareness with all the publicity surrounding fires – especially on the western side of the Mornington Peninsula.
“This fire is 100 metres from homes – suburban Melbourne brick veneers,” Mr Warrington said.
“We are doing the best we can to protect life and assets.”
Asked about the speed of the “Too late to leave” order, Mr Warrington said: “The biggest killer is radiant heat. The worst place to be is out in the open air. It would be like standing in front of 1000 radiators. You will burn.
“It is best to get inside and shut exterior doors and windows, shut blinds and curtains and turn off air conditioning.”
By 5.15pm the CFA was reporting 20 homes under threat.
At 5.22 Channel 9 broadcast live vision of two burning houses.
5.36pm: The Channel 9 helicopter’s pilot reported that the cooler wind change had given the fire “a whole new aspect” with spotting occurring all over the place. It was “very active along its northern edge”.
“If it keeps running at this pace it will be at the beach soon and that’s 500 metres away,” the pilot said.
“Chopper crews are having trouble getting under the thick smoke but are water bombing around a lone car which may or may not have people inside.”
Police had closed off Woolleys Rd at both ends and there is one house in the fire’s path.
By 5.40pm a resident of Stony Point Rd between Lorimer St and Governors Rd said he felt the danger to his property had passed. The wind change had arrived and apart from the presence of helicopters it was impossible to tell there was an emergency nearby.
However, he had been ready to flee “with just our passports and the guinea pig. What do you take when you’re in a house surrounded by all the things you love?”
Four minutes later the CFA said the fire was out of control and burning rapidly north easterly towards Western Port.
A further bulletin at 6.20pm warned resident against returning home.
By 7.05pm the fire warning was downgraded to “watch and act”.
The result was the loss of two houses, two sheds and a garage.
Keith Platt, Neil Walker and Steve Taylor