What went wrong as the bushfires flared

What went wrong as the bushfires flared

11 February 2011

published by www.watoday.com.au

Australia — It has only been days, but already lessons from Sunday’s devastating bushfires are emerging, which may just spare others with dangerous fire conditions continuing today.
What happened:

Saturday February 5, 5.30pm – Total fire ban for Perth, Perth Hills and surrounding areas issued.
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Sunday February 6, 11.42am – The first triple-0 call received by FESA about a bushfire on a Brookton Highway property between Kelmscott and Roleystone.

12.00 noon – Four fire trucks sent to the blaze. Helitacs were notified and put on standby as it was deemed a high risk area.

12.03pm – The trucks reported the fire was contained and air support and extra resources were stood down.

12.11pm – One of the crew members noticed a fire ember had started a blaze 200-900 metres away and headed to the area to again commence fire fighting operations.

12.15pm – Crews asked the authority to issue alerts to nearby residents and reinstated the standby notification for air support, Deparment of Environment and Conservation firefighters and other appliances.

12.45pm – Advice “to be aware and keep up to date” was issued to the media for distribution.

1.30pm – An emergency warning “to take immediate action to survive” was issued.

1.50pm – A state alert was issued about the need to “watch and act”.

2.45pm – Relocation point for evacuated residents were set up at the local community centre. Hourly updates on road closures and firefighting efforts were provided from then on.

6pm – Media were advised that the Buckingham Bridge, on Brookton Highway, had collapsed and many power lines were down. There were no clear numbers on how many properties were on fire, however TV networks were reporting up to 12 homes were lost. The City of Aramdale set up a new relocation point at their Armadale Arena centre and transferred residents from the centre.

7.15pm – 35 homes confirmed lost, almost 400 hectares burnt as firefighters struggled to protect Roleystone and Clifton Hill subdivision homes.

7.30pm – Police arson squad officers sent to investigate.

8.20pm – Kelmscott nursing home evacuated with the help of St John Ambulance.

10.55pm – Fire was moving 200 metres per hour and was three metres high, but embers were flying only 100 metres ahead of the fire, down from 500 metres. Initial investigations by FESA and WA Police determined the cause of the fire was accidental through a person using an angle grinder.

11.35pm – The Department of Education advised Clifton Hills Primary School and Kelmscott Primary School would be closed on Monday and parents were asked to keep students at home.

Monday 1.10am – 40 structures damaged or destroyed, including homes, sheds and carports.

7.30am – 41 homes destroyed and 19 damaged.

10.30am – Public meeting held with FESA’s incident controller, the local mayor and police superintendant.

11.30am – Natural disaster relief fund made available to residents, with 42 homes now destroyed.

1pm – 59 homes confirmed destroyed and 28 damaged as fire moves at 100 metres an hour in numerous directions.

4.05pm – Clifton Hills Primary School and Kelmscott Primary School remain closed and Good Shepherd Catholic School also closed for the following day.

6pm – Volunteering WA began collecting goods donated to bushfire victims.

9.45pm – 64 homes confirmed destroyed and 32 damaged.

Tuesday 6pm – Final toll reaches 72 homes destroyed and 32 damaged.
What went wrong:

First alerts – Roleystone resident Denise Hardie received her first fire warning at 4.30pm Sunday. FESA admitted that it initially issued advice directly to targeted residents rather than informing the whole district. Alerts were sent via text message, email, fax and landline phone. However those who did not have mobile phone numbers registered to home addresses in affected areas were not included.

Speed of news – A local truck driver had put a notification on Facebook about the bridge collapsing hours before media were advised. Many residents relied on word of mouth to keep them updated and inform them about the state of their homes after they were evacuated.

Fuel load – City of Armadale failed to do enough prescribed burning in the area, admitting it had a “no controlled burning” policy for more than a decade in Lloyd Hughes Park, where the fire spread. DEC also defended the fact that it was unable to carry out prescribed burns of Banyowla Regional Park because responsibility fell within multiple authorities to manage the bushland reserve.

Evaporative air-conditioners – About 50 per cent of the 72 homes destroyed had evaporative air-conditioners left on, which meant embers floating off the bushfire were being sucked into the system and landing on the highly flammable filters. Only water should remain on to keep the filters damp.

Rubbish collection – Bins were lining cul-de-sacs for collection on Monday, which made access difficult for fire trucks and those wanting to evacuate in a hurry with caravans, boats and trailers. It also provided a further fuel source for fires.

Preparations – Not many residents had enough notification to make any preparations to protect their homes, with the speed of the fire jumping from house to house. FESA said that when an emergency warning was issued, the primary concern was to save lives – luckily none were lost despite the devastation.

Fuel loads are greater this summer and fires could crop up anywhere at any time, FESA has warned.

Those living in the lower west region, ranging from Mandurah to Chittering, including the metropolitan Hills and Perth district and also the central west, reaching Kalbarri, have been advised of a severe fire danger this weekend due to hot gusty winds reaching up to 80km/h.

Homes should be prepared to the highest level if people chose to stay and defend them, since fires will move quickly and embers may come from many directions.

Those preparing their homes should consult the FESA website, including covering evaporative air-conditioners with metal covers and only running water to keep the filters damp. Some more modern evaporative air-conditioners may have more fire retardant filters but residents should not run the risk, it advises.

A total fire ban is also current for the area which means residents are not to light or use any fire in the open air and hot work such as metal work, grinding and the like are not permitted unless granted an exemption.

FESA has announced it would to carry out an inquiry into the Perth Hills fires to review actions and protocols. Already it was examining increasing text message alerts to any mobile phone in the vicinity of a fire, which would require the co-operation of telecommunication networks.

FESA chief operations officer Craig Hynes has advised that residents should not simply wait to be alerted and if fire engine sirens and overhead helicopters can be heard then it is reasonable to assume that a fire is on its way.

A community meeting is being held on Sunday for Roleystone and Kelmscott residents to examine how they will set about rebuilding, as well as developing a model for a community bushfire plan based on the Victorian bushfire proposals.

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