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Search for missing Ballarat woman Samantha Murphy postponed due to fire danger

<span>Volunteer group Ground Crew cancelled this week’s search for missing Ballarat woman Samantha Murphy as emergency authorities warned Wednesday could be Victoria’s worst fire day in four years.</span><span>Photograph: James Ross/AAP</span>
Volunteer group Ground Crew cancelled this week’s search for missing Ballarat woman Samantha Murphy as emergency authorities warned Wednesday could be Victoria’s worst fire day in four years.Photograph: James Ross/AAP

A volunteer-led ground search for missing Ballarat woman Samantha Murphy has been postponed due to a catastrophic fire danger rating for a nearby region.

Emergency authorities fear Wednesday could be the state’s worst fire day in four years, with more than 30,000 Victorians urged to leave their homes overnight or by the morning.

On Saturday, hundreds of Ballarat residents and visitors joined a large-scale search for Murphy, who vanished more than three weeks ago.

In a statement, volunteer group Ground Crew – which organised Saturday’s search – said this weekend’s search would be cancelled due to the fire warnings.

“We don’t want to put more strain on the community or the current SES and CFA volunteers who are already working tirelessly,” the group said. “Safety is paramount for everyone.”

Related: Search parties, intrigue and a piece of Australian bushland hiding a secret: what happened to Samantha Murphy?

Tori Baxter, a Ground Crew organiser, told Guardian Australia the community wanted to ensure emergency resources were directed towards the fires.

“We felt it was better for everyone’s safety and wellbeing if we didn’t go ahead,” she said.

Baxter said the community felt reassured when Victoria police announced a renewed ground search on Friday.

“There was a sense of hope that police hadn’t given up,” she said.

Police on Friday revealed they suspected “one or more parties” were involved in the disappearance of Murphy, saying it was “very doubtful” she was still alive.

Det Acting Supt Mark Hatt said there was nothing to indicate that Murphy left the area of her own accord and ruled out a medical incident.

Mobile phone data provided a new lead in the search for Murphy, with detectives returning on Friday to a previously examined area in the Mount Clear area – about 7km south of her home – for a targeted hunt for clues.

The 51-year-old left her home on Eureka Street in Ballarat East on 4 February to go jogging and has not been seen since.

Victoria’s emergency management commissioner, Rick Nugent, on Tuesday said about 30,000 people living between Ballarat and Ararat, in Victoria’s west, would be notified via text message on Tuesday to leave.

He said hot and windy conditions forecast for Wednesday would probably cause an existing bushfire at Bayindeen, north-west of Ballarat, to spread, potentially affecting the towns.

Temperatures are expected to soar to the mid-40s in north-west Victoria, and to the high 30s and low 40s for the rest of the state.