Firefighters are battling to save homes which are being threatened by an out-of-control blaze south-west of Melbourne, as authorities urge Victorians to prepare for what is predicted to be the state's worst bushfire season in a decade.
The blaze, at Little River, between Werribee and Geelong, started just before midday and within 15 minutes prompted authorities to urge nearby residents to evacuate.
Emergency services deployed about 50 fire trucks, two large air-tankers, helicopters and an air-crane to battle the blaze and managed to slow its spread, but were still working to bring it under control tonight.
The fire burned through an area covering about 1,240 hectares and is believed to have destroyed a number of sheds, but authoritiesdowngraded their most serious Emergency warning to a Watch and Act message shortly after 2:40pm.
The blaze started north of Little River and travelled south where it crossed the rail line, causing V/Line to stop train services between Melbourne and Geelong.
Addressing a media conference late this afternoon, Victoria's Emergency Management Commissioner, Andrew Crisp, urged the public to remain vigilant.
"It's still an active fire. There's still a lot of work happening in relation to this particular fire," Mr Crisp said.
"We have still got a number of hours to go where we've got hot weather, even though there is a change coming through from the south-west," he said.
"We've been able to put significant resources to this particular fire but they're still working hard."
Authorities said about 130 homes would need to be examined for damage once the fire was brought under control.
Emergency Services Minister Lisa Neville said it was vital Victorians were fire-ready.
"It's a reminder to all of us that this summer is going to be hot, it's going to be dry and that we're going to see more and more days like this," Ms Neville said.
"So the message or the reminder out of these last two days is that summer has hit and that we all need to be absolutely prepared," she said.
"We need all Victorians to take this seriously."
Firefighters faced their first major test of the summer yesterday when they contained a 40-hectare blaze at Buninyong, near Ballarat in western Victoria.
CFA chief fire officer Steve Warrington in August urged Victorians to prepare for the worst fire season in a decade, warning that record-breaking low rainfalls in some parts of the state had produced the most dangerous conditions since Black Saturday, when 173 people died in February 2009.
At 7:00pm, authorities were still urging residents of the communities of Manor and Mambourin, near the Little River fire, to leave or avoid the area.
"Conditions may change and get worse very quickly," the official advice for residents said.
"Emergency services may not be able to help you if you decide to stay."
People should take pets, mobile phones and chargers with them, it said.
Relief centres has been set up at Centenary Hall in Norlane, and at Wyndham Encore Events Centre in Hoppers Crossing.
Earlier, CFA incident controller Geoff McGill said the fire was being treated as suspicious and appeared to have three points of origin.
He said investigators would look into those locations when it was safer.
"We'll be treating them as suspicious," he told ABC Radio Melbourne.
"I don't want to make any assumptions at this stage … but yes it is disappointing if it's found out to be deliberate."
Local resident John Stevens said such suspicious fires started "far too often" in the area.
"The fire started pretty much in the same spot about three years ago," he said.
"It's very frightening.
"You worry all the time. All the neighbours are always constantly looking for suspicious vehicles."
Maddie, who works at the Little River General Store, said it was upsetting to hear the fire may have been deliberately lit.
"We're a very tight-knit community here … so that hurts," she said.
It is believed the fire started in a paddock, after Victoria's hottest night since January, with overnight lows in the mid-to-high 20s in some parts of the state.
Temperatures soared above 40 degrees in Avalon early this afternoon.
Dean Narramore from the Bureau of Meteorology said hot temperatures and gusty winds were fuelling the blaze, and conditions were not expected to ease until late tonight.
At this afternoon's press conference, the Emergency Management Commission revealed that over the past two days, Ambulance Victoria had responded to numerous calls about children being left in hot cars.
Mr Crisp said paramedics received 11 such calls yesterday and a further seven today.
"I just can't understand the behaviour where young children are left in vehicles," Mr Crisp said.
"I'm not sure how many times we need to keep telling people.
"It's still hot out there."ABC