‘Close to hell’

By Ashleigh Fielding | posted on May 31, 2018

AS the City of Albany comes to terms with the effects of last week’s maelstrom of fires, the restricted burning period for the region has been extended to reduce the risk of a repeat episode.

More than 50 fires blazed across the City in a space of four days last week after a weather system brought unexpected northerly winds up to 100kph and failed to deliver substantial rainfall.

Volunteer and career firefighters from across the state fought flames in conditions described as “pretty close to hell” in Torndirrup National Park, Stirling Range National Park, Redmond, Napier, Goode Beach, Peaceful Bay and Elleker.

The escaped prescribed burns in Torndirrup National Park and Stirling Range National Park burnt through 730 hectares and 18,100 hectares respectively.

The Napier fire tore through 705 hectares and the Redmond fire through 1456 hectares, and both were triggered by escaped private burns.

The Torndirrup fire was the first reported, with emergency services on the scene on Wednesday afternoon at approximately 2.30pm.

Fire crews worked through the night to defend homes, and the area was placed under a bushfire ‘Watch and Act’ by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES).

On Thursday, another prescribed burn had escaped control in the south-east of the Stirling Range National Park.

From then, the situation quickly escalated; calls for assistance inundated authorities as more than 50 fires required attention at the peak of the crisis, including in areas of Redmond, Napier, Goode Beach and Peaceful Bay.

One house was completely destroyed in Napier, holiday retreat Nutkin Lodge in Peaceful Bay suffered significant damage, and hundreds of hectares of farmland were ruined across the region.

The City of Albany handed control of coordinating the firefighting effort to DFES at 4.15am on Friday and more than 50 heavy duty appliances were called upon to assist in the effort, with additional crews coming from the metropolitan and South West regions.

An evacuation centre was set up at Albany Leisure and Aquatic Centre for Thursday and Friday to provide relief for residents who evacuated their homes.

After hundreds of strenuous hours on the fire ground put in by volunteer and career firefighters defending residents, homes and livestock, all areas were cleared from bushfire threat by Monday.

At a community meeting at ALAC on Friday, Albany Mayor Dennis Wellington told media he had never seen such a scenario occur in Albany in his 68 years of living in the area.

“This is the biggest disaster I’ve seen,” he said.

“This is our traditional time to have prescribed burns; you see a storm with a predicted 40mm of rain, you expect it from the south-west and you burn off before then.

“We don’t expect storms from the north.

“It’s just an absolute bonus that no lives have been lost; we have been very, very fortunate no one has been lost.”

Premier Mark McGowan made a whirlwind trip to Albany on Saturday to get an update on the fires and to tour the fireground at Redmond as the mopping-up effort began.

Mr McGowan acknowledged the efforts of those involved in fighting the blazes and said he did not want to start a blame game over what triggered the maelstrom of fires.

“We know there’s been a significant amount of fires out there and that it has been difficult to deal with,” he said.

“We also know that Council, DFES, the volunteers and Parks and Wildlife have done a terrific job.

“I put that down to the levels of firefighting capacity working together so effectively in these extreme circumstances.”

Mr McGowan confirmed the crisis would be investigated.

“After this event, there will be a full review about what occurred and why it occurred,” he said.

“I don’t intend to get into blaming anyone; I’m here to acknowledge the extraordinary efforts of the people involved who risked their lives on behalf of their community in this very serious situation.”

The City announced earlier this week the restricted burning period for the north-east and south-west sectors of the region has been extended until June 15, effective immediately.

During this time, a permit will be required to conduct a burn-off.

Executive Director for Development Services Paul Camins said the City will review conditions before the extended restricted period ends to assess whether further extensions are necessary.