As bushfires continue to push towards the Thomson Dam in the state's east, firefighters fear today's return of high winds and hot temperatures may threaten efforts to protect Melbourne's water supply from contamination.
Fire authorities believe forecast 36-degree temperatures and north-westerly winds could push the Mount Terrible fire into the catchment. "(Today is) the big day … It could burn the catchment," the Country Fire Authority's state duty officer, Gary Weir, warned.
Using more than 60 bulldozers, including five from the army, firefighters were racing against the clock last night to build containment lines. But they said backburning would not be finished by today.
If the threat does not eventuate, the week ahead is expected to bring cooler conditions. Fire authorities hope to use the reprieve to finish backburning.
Small business owners and farmers burnt out by the blazes, meanwhile, could be eligible for grants up to $10,000 for clean-up and restoration of their livelihoods. Prime Minister John Howard announced the cash lifelines yesterday, stressing that they would come on top of the existing federal commitment for much of the personal hardship payments, loans and infrastructure rebuilding.
Non-profit groups affected by the disaster would also be eligible for small grants, and financial counselling will be offered.
Authorities were able to get a good idea of how far the bushfires have spread when clouds and smoke lifted yesterday.
The fires have consumed an area roughly equivalent to a 35-kilometre radius around Melbourne — spanning as far as Frankston to Belgrave to Whittlesea and Sunbury.
Fires have blackened more than 409,000 hectares.
The Mount Terrible fire, threatening the Thomson Dam reservoir, has burnt through 36,000 hectares.
Department of Sustainability and Environment spokesman Duncan Pendrigh said fire reaching the Thomson catchment would be a worst-case scenario. "The fire didn't do that last Sunday when it was much hotter and winds were stronger, so we are hoping it won't happen (today)," he said.
Melbourne Water spokesman Ben Pratt said if fire hit the water catchment, the supply could be stopped for up to three months to allow ash to settle.
In the north-east yesterday, CFA crews took advantage of favourable conditions to conduct backburning and containment work. The largest fire — an amalgamation of fires in the alpine region — has now burnt through more than 370,000 hectares.
Communities to the south and east of the big bushfires will come under the greatest threat tomorrow. A statewide total fire ban has been declared for 24 hours from midnight tonight.
Yesterday the Jamieson area remained under ember attack. Glencairn residents were put on high alert as the Mount Terrible bushfire closed in, and winds are keeping towns such as Heyfield and Briagolong and Valencia Creek at high risk."