Kimberley ultramarathon organisers ignored advice to check on fires

Kimberley ultramarathon organisers ignored advice to check on fires  

15 September 2011

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Australia — ORGANISERS of the Kimberley Ultramarathon did not ask emergency services for advice about bushfires in the days before the event.

The West Australian Fire and Emergency Services Authority has confirmed that RacingThePlanet organisers did not contact it as they were advised to do by the Department of Environment and Conservation two days before the 100km race.

“The organisers contacted DEC in respect to crocodiles,” a DEC spokesman said yesterday.

“The organisers did ask about the fires but as the race was not being held on DEC-managed land, DEC referred them to FESA.”

But FESA only learnt about the race indirectly, The Australian has learned.

The revelations come amid claim and counter-claim about what organisers did in the lead-up to the event, as well as a police investigation into how racers came to run towards a fire front that had been spotted by gyrocopter pilot John Storey four hours before it trapped competitors in a gorge.

Mr Storey could not reach the course director or course volunteers on UHF radio, while staff had difficulty communicating with each other on their satellite phones.

Competitors had been racing for about 5 1/2 hours on September 2 when the fire crossed the course around 2pm.

WA police say they were called to the scene at 3pm to investigate missing persons.

What they saw when they arrived shocked them. Two women had sustained burns to 80-90 per cent of their bodies.

Last night, mining engineer and part-time model Turia Pitt, 24, of Ulludulla in southern NSW, remained in a critical condition in Sydney’s Concord Hospital, while Victorian Kate Sanderson, 35, was in a serious but stable condition at The Alfred hospital in Melbourne.

Fellow competitors Martin Van Der Merwe, 56, and Michael Hull, 44, were still in Royal Perth Hospital yesterday with burns to 20 per cent of their bodies.

It is understood that on August 31, a RacingThePlanet organiser phoned the wildlife officer in the East Kimberley town of Kununurra to ask about crocodiles.

He told them they must not let runners cross Dunham River on foot because it was full of saltwater crocodiles.

The event organiser then asked the wildlife officer about a fire that had been burning in the region for two days.

The officer told the race organiser that DEC did not have jurisdiction over the area and to contact FESA.

RacingThePlanet founder Mary Gadams has defended event preparations, saying organisers were aware of fires but “the first RacingThePlanet knew of there being a potentially hazardous fire was when it swept across our course”.

“If we had had any knowledge of there being a risk of a hazardous fire interfering with the race, we would have either immediately cancelled the event or moved it to a different location,” she said.

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