When Pinjar resident Stewart Archer woke on Saturday 10 January, he had no idea of the day that lay ahead.
After sparks from an angle grinder ignited bushland in the north eastern suburb of Bullsbrook, a massive bushfire took hold and began heading west.
“It was like wearing yellow tinted sunglasses,” Stewart said. “For the entire day, there was a yellow glow looming over us.”
Living west of Bullsbrook, Stewart’s home was directly in the fire’s path. By 1pm that afternoon, his wife Mandy and two teenage children relocated to a safer place.
“The fire was quickly approaching and it was time to get my family to a safe place where they wouldn’t be in any danger. They went to stay with friends in Clarkson,” he said.
Along with a neighbour, Stewart stayed to actively defend his home.
“My plan had always been to evacuate with my family but in the heat of the moment my plan changed for the worse and I chose to stay and defend instead.
“It wasn’t a rational decision but I was so worried about losing our family home that I followed my heart instead of my head, and put myself in danger in the process.
“I used a hose connected to my bore all afternoon, until the power cut, to keep my house cool and wet.”
DFES Deputy Commissioner Lloyd Bailey said changing your plan at the last minute can result in people being unprepared and ending up in grave danger.
“If people are going to stay and defend their homes they need to be extremely well prepared,” Deputy Commissioner Bailey said.
“This includes having an independent water supply, a power generator they can rely on and protective clothing.
“If you’re staying to defend then you also need to be mentally prepared for the worst.”
As the day progressed, Stewart realised he was in over his head.
“By 8.30pm it looked like the flames were coming straight towards my home.
“It seemed that the constantly switching wind had sealed our fate and within minutes, hot ash and burning embers were flying all around us.
“For about five minutes my neighbour and I focused on putting out spot fires around my house.
“However, when acres of Geraldton Wax behind my house roared with flames as high and wide as I could see, I knew we weren’t equipped to deal with the situation.
“I retreated to my car and was able to flag down one of the fire crews we had seen down the road. It was fortunate they were in the area to help.”
Bush Fire Brigade volunteers from Capel arrived at Stewart’s property and began to fight the fire, while embers were flying into his yard.
Ember attack is a serious problem during bushfires, when burning fragments of tree bark or other small fuel material are carried by the wind ahead of the fire. If it’s a windy day they can blow kilometres ahead of the main fire.
Most homes lost in a bushfire are from ember attack, with embers becoming trapped within small openings, such as gaps between roof tiles, setting buildings on fire.
Stewart said he saw the embers ignite the trees next to his house.
“I thought about losing my family’s way of life. I was in shock,” he said.
“From my vantage point about 150 meters up the road, I watched as the tall gumtrees surrounding our house went up in a fury of fire and smoke.
“After about an hour it seemed like the firefighters were going to beat it, with the flames finally dying down.”
The firefighters’ hard work had saved Stewart’s home and he left feeling somewhat reassured but aware that there was still the threat of ember attack in the area.
“I came back the next morning to discover my house was still standing. The burnt land around it looked like the surface of the moon,” Stewart said.
“I found the firefighters still patrolling the road and thanked them for stopping the fire before it engulfed my home.”
Going into his home Stewart noticed a large crack in his ceiling. It felt hot to the touch and he realised that a fire had started in his ceiling as a result of the continued ember attack.
“I had to rush out, yelling to the firefighters I had just thanked to get them and come and help again.
“The next thing I knew they were all standing on my roof, pulling off tiles as flames licked above their heads.”
Again, firefighters were able to save Stewart’s home with minimal damage.
“After a couple of flare-ups they managed to extinguish the fire before it took hold.”
That night, Stewart’s family were able to return home.
“We had to stay vigilant for a while because small unburnt pockets of scrub would reignite and take off again.
“There were firefighters patrolling the area for days after the fire front passed, to monitor for flare ups and hot spots, and I had to report one flare up two days later.”
After the blaze, Stewart took some time to assess what had happened.
“I had blisters on my feet from the heat of the fire. In hindsight, trying to fight a fire in thongs and a t-shirt was not a good idea.
“I also couldn’t talk for a few days because of the ash burn in my throat.”
Stewart said he had done a lot to prepare for bushfires, including keeping his firebreaks cleared, his gutters clean and having a bushfire survival plan ready.
“The plan was to evacuate my family at the first sign of danger.
“While I chose to stay and defend, without a generator that was powerful enough to continue running our large bore once the power was cut, there was only a limited amount I could do.
“I did have a planned route to escape and find safe ground for when the fire approached.”
“There were things I missed though. I could have done more to secure my gas bottles. The firefighters had to do that for me.”
Stewart’s preparedness for bushfire played a large part in his house being saved.
“My advice to others is to thoroughly prepare your home well in advance and get out early.”
Firefighters do all they can to protect homes from bushfires, but it is important that community members play their part in preparing their homes and having a bushfire action plan in place.
Did you know?
During a bushfire, it is likely you will lose power and water. Mains water pressure may drop or fail and as a result, if you are planning to actively defend, you will need to have an independent water supply.
This should be a concrete or steel tank with a 20,000 litre capacity to ensure adequate defence of your home.
If you lose power you will need a generator to pump your water supply for actively defending your home. Your generator will need to have more than 1.5 kVA capacity to drive a home pressure pump, or a petrol or diesel firefighting pump.
Pumps and generators should be able to pump 400 litres per minute and must be shielded from high temperatures caused by a bushfire.