Close call: Fire burned the median strip and either side of the Hume Freeway at Epping. Residents say there was chaos on local roads as people tried to leave the area. Photo: Jason South
TRAFFIC in Melbourne’s booming outer north all but ground to a halt during Monday’s mass evacuation of residents, putting people at greater risk from the fire, locals say.
The large grass fire that broke out in the area on Monday, threatening properties in the fringe suburbs of Epping North and Wollert, provoked a rush to safer territory that quickly became a slow crawl.
Epping North resident Cara Horner learnt that the fire was moving east towards her home at 3.10pm and quickly got into her car, but said roads out of the estate were already ”bumper to bumper” as she headed to nearby Epping Plaza.
This was more than half an hour before she received a text message from the Country Fire Authority advising her to evacuate.
”By that time the roads were already clogged … The roads around here are only little country roads and they’re not designed to take such a big influx of people all at once,” said Ms Horner, who is also secretary of residents’ group the Aurora Community Association.
”We’re unsafe when there’s an emergency, we can’t get out quick enough.”
Jason Jackson, a Wollert resident, hit gridlock while evacuating about 3pm.
His home faces the south-eastern side of the fire, a few hundred metres from the charred flank of the blaze. Mr Jackson said: ”They put the houses here, make their money, and then worry about things like roads later.”
His neighbour, Kristie Ferraro, said cars were travelling bumper-to-bumper along High Street, the sole main road connecting Wollert with Epping.
”It was like that all the way. They just haven’t made enough exits,” she said.
Another estate resident, Stacey Edwards, said her street, Edenvale Boulevard, did not appear to be on emergency services’ maps.
Ms Edwards said that when she rang the bushfire information line about 6pm Monday, the operator could not find her street. ”They said, ‘There’s been some structural damage in the area but we can’t confirm where it is. We know as much as you do’.”
The emergency evacuation and the gridlock it caused prompted new pleas to boost the local road network.
Traffic modelling done last year by the City of Whittlesea found the Epping area’s arterial roads were already at or near capacity, and will be choked by 2016. The area’s busiest road, Cooper Street, already carries more vehicles than it was designed for at 40,000 a day, and is projected to carry more than 60,000 by 2016 and clog the Hume Freeway entry and exit ramps.
City of Whittlesea wants state and federal governments to help fund three key road projects to relieve congestion in Epping and Wollert. Last year it submitted its request to Infrastructure Australia, without success.
It wants to duplicate O’Herns Road in Epping and connect it to the Hume Freeway, and to extend Edgars Road north from Cooper Street into Epping North’s housing estates. It estimates the projects would cost up to $120 million.
The state government has acknowledged the upgrades are essential, but has not committed to them and has no date for when the projects might start. VicRoads has only modelled traffic volumes for the area for 2046, the year the northern growth corridor will be fully developed.
”This is not to suggest these projects are not needed at an earlier date, however, as no interim modelling was undertaken, VicRoads has not determined a time frame in which these projects must be delivered to support this growth,” a VicRoads spokesman said.
Griff Davis, director of advocacy for the City of Whittlesea, said the community could not afford to wait.
”Even if the state government started on this project now, it would not be available until the year 2015 and would then only last another six years before the roads are again predicted to be saturated with traffic,” he said.
O’Herns Road already carries about 15,000 vehicles a day at its eastern end, while the western end stops dead at the edge of a quarry after crossing over the Hume Freeway.
”It’s a local road carrying 14,000-15,000 vehicles a day, the road is already at capacity in the peak now,” Mr Davis said.
Mr Davis said developers who own land in the area had contributed to the city’s funding submission to Infrastructure Australia, indicating their desire to see the local road network’s expansion.
A Baillieu government spokeswoman said: ”We wish Whittlesea council luck in continuing to seek funding support from Infrastructure Australia.”