Bushfire-Affected Residents Claim They're 'Prisoners' And Can't Leave Town
Residents of a rural Victorian village claim they are "prisoners in our own town", stuck in their small community and unable to leave due to road closures.
The townships of Noorinbee and Cann River, 30 kilometres from the NSW border in eastern Victoria, have been essentially cut off in every direction due to bushfire risk along the Monaro and Princes highways.
There are still significant bushfire warnings in the area, including the for Orbost fire which Emergency Management Victoria claims has burnt nearly 600,000 hectares.
But some Noorinbee and Cann River residents say they are experiencing "cabin fever" as they're stuck in their village with little access to fresh food and comforts, claiming they feel like "the forgotten town".
Some say they've been told the roads in and out are too dangerous to drive on, and claim Victoria Police had fined a few residents who had tried to leave the area.
"Our town has no grocery shop open, just our pub which is running out of beer," Noorinbee resident Cassarndra Skarratt told 10 daily.
"It is frustrating when many services to Mallacoota seem to be driving through town and we are constantly told that the roads are unsafe."
Mallacoota, 55km east, was the scene of military evacuations by sea and terrifying red skies in recent weeks.
Cann River resident Briar Puyenbroek left town ahead of the bushfire risk, taking refuge in Melbourne, but said he has not been permitted to return home due to blocked roads.
"They watch cars pass through town heading to Mallacoota but are told the roads are not safe for locals," he said, of the residents who remained in town.
"They make us feel like we are of no importance and not worth acknowledging as needing help."
Victoria Police said they had the power to fine those breaching roadblocks, but could not confirm if fines had been issued around Cann River.
"For safety reasons there are a number of traffic management points in place in bushfires affected areas which cannot be ignored under any circumstances," police said in a statement.
"Even when an emergency has passed, there can be other dangers in the area such as falling trees or live power wires."
"We understand this may be frustrating to many residents who want to travel to and from their homes and the community can be reassured emergency services are working hard to make this happen."
Victorian Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said response agencies had been working "tirelessly" to give remote areas access to food, supplies and communications. He defended the help given to the Cann River area, saying supplies and information had been provided, but shared sympathy with those frustrated.
"There is a lot of fire in the landscape and there is still active fire edge in these areas. Conditions can change quickly, so it’s important that people follow the directions of police and emergency services, and remain connected to emergency information and warnings," he said in a statement.
"I understand this can be a very difficult and stressful time for community members and urge people to seek support through family, friends and other support networks."
Debbie Stone evacuated from Noorinbee on December 29, and has been staying several hours away in Yarram. She said she is "grieving" because she can't get home, and doesn't know if her property has survived the fires.
"I don't know if my home or property is ok because it is up on a hill and is too hard to access. I am waiting in limbo until the highway opens or a convoy happens, but over three weeks later I am still waiting," she said.
"I don't know what else to do. It has cost a lot of money and I am extremely stressed and also worried about my future."
Skarratt said most of her 137-acre property was burnt in the bushfires that threatened her town, but her home escaped significant damage. She is grateful for her good fortune, as well as the "abundance" of help delivered by the military and others, but claimed locals are upset about a lack of fresh food and products such as cigarettes.
While supplies are dropped in regularly, Skarratt claimed prime items are quickly snapped up, and for people who aren't on the scene at the time of the food drop, pickings can be slim.
"We're all eating baked beans or two-minute noodles. Maybe if you're lucky it’s a packet of pasta with tomato sauce. There's not even tinned fish, just soups, cans, crackers," Skarratt claimed.
"The only dairy in the area is currently pouring milk all over the paddocks because they can't get a tanker out."
10 daily understands shipments of fresh fruit, vegetables, meat and other essential supplies were delivered to the area overnight.
Victoria Police have been helping bring supplies, such as food for livestock, into bushfire-affected towns including Cann River. Police told 10 daily "road access is constantly being reviewed" but that "there are no specific timelines when specific roads will be reopened".
Skarratt said only a handful of local businesses were open, with the owners of other shops and services stuck outside of town after evacuating ahead of the fires. She said her son was one of those unable to return home yet.
"They can't get back to open up and start the cleanup, but big convoys and army machinery are driving down the highway," Skarratt said.
"We understand you have to make sure the looters and thrillseekers aren't on the roads, but we need to get our family back together."
Another Cann River resident, Nikki Amputch, said locals were frustrated at what they claimed was a lack of information.
"We understand that the fire caused major damage and problems for our community and they are trying to make our roads safer for us," she said.
"But they seem to be missing the point that we are stuck with no real answers on when we'd be able to get back on the roads again."
Puyenbroek said evacuated residents were not being allowed to travel home, and were forced to shell out for motel rooms.
"Some of us evacuated are paying for accommodation and money is running out... we have no information on how long we are going to be away from home," he said.
"Being in contact with those trapped in town, hearing their cries for help, just makes us angry that we are still being treated like the forgotten town not worth acknowledging or helping."
Skarratt claimed she was aware of several people who had been fined by police for driving on the blocked roads. She said residents' requests for an escorted convoy of trucks and cars to a nearby town, so they could buy supplies, had been refused.
"We’re told to sit down, behave and just wait. It’s getting to the point where locals cant do that anymore. We need supplies," she said.
"Everything is focused on Mallacoota, but nothing on the surrounding areas."
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