Cigarette butt blamed for West Bendigo fire; two dead, 50 homes lost.

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A LIT cigarette butt, possibly thrown from a passing car or truck, is the probable cause of the West Bendigo fire that claimed two lives and destroyed 50 homes. The fire started about 5.30pm on Saturday in a vacant Eaglehawk block, just 1.5km from Bendigo's city centre, 150km northwest of Melbourne.

Who's watching when smokers litter their butts?  Everyone's watching.
Strike crews spent all of yesterday putting out burning embers, while State Emergency Service workers and police set up roadblocks to keep the area off-limits to curious day-trippers. CFA crews worked through the night trying to save properties and contain new outbreaks caused by burning embers and changes in wind direction.

Two people died in the blaze, one in Bendigo and another when a Long Gully house was destroyed by the fire.

Kevin "Mick" Kane, who was ill and housebound, died alone at his Long Gully weatherboard miner's cottage, his home of 20 years. His wife, Carol, thought he had been taken to safety and neighbours, who knocked on the front door to alert him to the approaching flames, received no answer.

CFA deputy group officer for the Bendigo Group Jim Hickson said it was "a miracle" no one else was killed, given the area's dense population. "The wind pushed it through the area so quickly that it caught a lot of people by surprise," he said.

Yesterday, fire investigators had sealed off a section of the Bracewell Street block, right next to theroad in Eaglehawk. CFA officials confirmed the fire had started there. The most likely cause, they said, was a lit cigarette butt being thrown from a passing car or truck window.

In just six minutes, an 80km-plus wind carried the intense blaze one kilometre to the southeast. Its swift assault gave residents no time to activate their fire plans and many were forced to flee as the Personal Ashtray for Bushfire Awareness Week 09flames approached.

The area - once a centre of Bendigo's 19th century goldrush activity - is part of the city's well-populated western fringe. Yesterday, black scrub and burnt gums led the way to the many houses destroyed, most with only a chimney stack intact.

Union Street resident Rhonda Swift and her husband, Ron, were preparing dinner when they heard a radio report of a grassfire 2km away. "We didn't worry too much, but then we saw a fireball come from across the road." Mr Swift told his wife to take one of their cars and leave.

He stayed to protect their property and his aviary of more than 40 finches, parrots and pigeons. The couple was reunited several hours later after the fire destroyed their home of 22 years and the aviary.

"All I had time to do was grab my handbag, that's all I have," she said yesterday as she and her husband picked through the ruins.

West Bendigo home

Nothing left ... Rhonda and Ray Swift inspect the damage to their West Bendigo home.

  By No Butts [10th February 2009]


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