Severe storms lash Victoria

Wild storms have brought high winds to parts of Victoria and caused the Spirit of Tasmania to break its moorings at Melbourne’s Station Pier.

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Damaging winds and dry lightning strikes accompanied thunderstorms that affected a vast area of Victoria on Wednesday afternoon, from the Mallee to the northeast and from the surf coast to metropolitan Melbourne and Gippsland.

Bathers in Melbourne were forced to flee as a downburst from a massive thunderstorm cell blasted them with raised sand.

A murky mist of dust blew into Melbourne with the storm that brought a cooling wind change to the city, where the top temperature was 42C.

The windstorm caused the Spirit of Tasmania’s moorings to snap, forcing the ship to swing 90 degrees from Station Pier and buckling its vehicle ramp.

Passengers remain on board the ferry in Melbourne and its sister vessel is tied up in Devonport until an engineering assessment of the ramp can determine when they can sail.

The Bureau of Meteorology has now lifted severe thunderstorm warnings it had issued on Wednesday afternoon.

The highest wind gusts were 107km/h at Hopetoun, 100km/h at St Kilda, 98km/h at Omeo and 93km/h at Avalon Airport in a 40-minute spread either side of 6pm.

Beaches between Fairhaven and Point Lonsdale on the surf coast were closed by Life Saving Victoria because of lightning strikes.

State Control Centre spokesman Gerard Scholten told AAP the State Emergency Service had 400 calls for assistance to 9pm on Wednesday.

Of those, 195 were for fallen trees and 53 for minor building damage.

The worst-hit areas included Melbourne’s outer east and northeast, Colac, Warragul and Mildura.

Mr Scholten said the more than 1100 lightning strikes around Victoria by 6.30pm, many in northeast Victoria, might cause fresh problems for firefighters.

BoM senior forecaster Richard Carlyon said by 10pm, the storms were clearing eastern Victoria.

“We had very hot, dry air and when precipitation falls into that, it causes strong downbursts at the surface,” he said.

Cooler winds behind the change have taken the intensity out of the storms, and wind speeds have eased, Mr Carlyon said.