Esperance devastation – a warning for the season ahead
A series of bushfires caused by lightning between 15 to 17 November has left the coastal farming town of Esperance shattered.
The unstoppable fires raged through more than 300,000 hectares claiming homes, crops, livestock, and most tragically, four members of the community. In the wake of the bushfires, flattened areas of the town have been described as looking like the surface of the moon.
It is a grave reminder of the dangers faced by Western Australian communities as we enter the high risk bushfire season.
Sparked by dry lightning, the first fires began to burn 50 kilometres north west of Esperance in the Cascade area and 20 kilometres east of Esperance at Merivale on Sunday 15 November.
Local volunteer firefighters responded, trying to bring the fires under control. However Mother Nature had other ideas - another fire started in the Mount Ragged area of Cape Arid National Park on Monday, also caused by lightning. Yet another ignited in the Thomas River-Poison Creek area of the park the following day.
Deputy Commissioner Lloyd Bailey said Monday also brought with it catastrophic fire danger predictions for Esperance for the next day.
“Those are the worst possible conditions for a grass fire or bushfire,” Deputy Commissioner Bailey said.
“People in the area were advised to put their survival first and leave the night before or early in the day if possible, and that it was not safe to stay and defend their homes.
“DFES also held a non-routine Emergency Services Weather Briefing with representatives from the Bureau of Meteorology, WA Police, the Departments of Education, Health and Transport, as well as telecommunications, electricity and gas providers.
“We began thoroughly preparing to deal with the expected conditions, activating our State Operations Centre to prepare for any potential emergencies.”
On the day of Tuesday 17 November there were 111 incidents occurring across the state including more than 50 bushfires.
With 40 degree temperatures, low humidity and strong gusty winds fanning the flames, the Esperance fires rapidly blazed out of control and the bushfire Advice warnings in place were escalated to Watch and Act and soon Emergency Warnings as the situation unfolded.
As fire conditions worsened and spot fires started from ember attack, homes were threatened and the Shire of Esperance and local firefighters who had been working tirelessly to manage the fires became stretched under increasing pressure.
DFES incident management and firefighting personnel reinforcements were quickly called for and residents were asked to evacuate from Scaddan, Grass Patch and Salmon Gums.
“Career and volunteer personnel from throughout the State came to the aid of the local responders,” said Deputy Commissioner Bailey.
“More than 200 Bush Fire Brigade, Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service, Volunteer Fire and Emergency Service, Parks and Wildlife, DFES firefighters and pastoralists worked doggedly throughout the week to bring the fires under control.
“They were aided by aerial support, together with assistance from the State Emergency Service.”
By the weekend it seemed firefighting efforts were paying off and the tide might be turning, but fire suppression was again hampered by adverse weather conditions. A wind change on Sunday 22 November pushed the Merivale fire in a different direction and it broke containment lines on the western side, bringing homes under threat.
With firefighters doing everything they could it still took two more days before the last of the fires were reined in and under control. Their steadfast determination and hard work saved more than 100 homes in the Myrup, Windabout, Bandy Creek and Castletown districts north east of Esperance.
Despite this victory, the losses to the Esperance community are heavy. Bumper grain crops that were ready for harvest supplied fuel for the fire and went up in smoke, while livestock losses have been estimated at around 15,000. Structural losses include two homes, 12 sheds, and other structures such as farm machinery and outbuildings. The severity of the heat and wind also caused significant losses of crops not impacted by the fire.
Most heartbreaking for the people of Esperance, the fires claimed the lives of Scaddan farmer Kym Curnow, Norwegian woman Anna Winther, British man Tom Butcher and German woman Julia Kohrs-Lichte.
As the people of Esperance pick up the pieces and start to rebuild their lives, the shocking impact of the bushfires that tore through their town and their lives is a reminder to us all that bushfires can strike almost anywhere at any time.
Deputy Commissioner Bailey said this season is expected to be a tough, challenging one for bushfires.
“The South West of Western Australia, including Perth and surrounding areas, faces an above normal fire potential this year,” he said.
“In November alone there were more than 500 bushfires reported across the state, including emergencies in Ellenbrook and Bindoon, yet the bushfire season has only just begun.
“We can’t predict where or when the next bushfire will occur and all it takes is one bushfire to change people’s lives.
“DFES is prepared for the upcoming season but everyone needs to play their part in preparing for bushfires – by having a bushfire survival plan and an emergency kit, and preparing their homes as much as possible.
“People also need to be aware of their surroundings and keep up to date with the warnings issued by DFES.
“The situation can change rapidly where bushfire is concerned, so you should never leave it until the last minute to put your plan into action.”
Spare a Cuppa for a Cockie – Esperance Farmers Fire Relief Appeal
Donate the cost of a cup of takeaway coffee to the WA Farmers Esperance Fire Appeal and help those impacted by the bushfire.
Sharing a cuppa is a farming tradition and urban Australia has a strong takeaway coffee culture. When you donate the cost of your morning cuppa your donation will go directly to farmers to assist in the purchase of troughs, fencing and other much needed supplies to help their farms become operational again.