Australia — The organisers of the ill-fated Kimberley Ultramarathon did not contact Western Australian fire authorities until well after a bushfire swept over the race route and severely burned two runners, an inquiry has been told.
Fire and Emergency Services Authority of WA fire manager for the East Kimberley district Tony Stephenson told a parliamentary inquiry in Perth on Wednesday the event organisers, Racing the Planet, did not contact him until about 1.40am (WST) on the morning after the bushfire.
Mr Stephenson said this was the first time he was contacted directly by the Hong Kong-based company.
“There had been no contact with Racing the Planet until after the event,” Mr Stephenson said.
However, Racing The Planet founder Mary Gadams had been copied into correspondence between FESA and the local visitor’s centre, in which Mr Stephenson said he needed a copy of the race route and a risk assessment before he could provide advice about bushfires.
He said he never received a copy of the race route, which was frustrating, but also conceded he didn’t directly ask Racing the Planet for it.
“The visitor’s centre made it clear Racing the Planet would be in direct contact – I had every faith that would occur,” Mr Stephenson said.
Mr Stephenson tried to contact the organisers directly on their satellite phones when FESA became aware a bushfire threatened to reach the runners, but he could not get through because the numbers he had been provided with started with Hong Kong area codes.
He had to work out the right code, but then battled with patchy coverage.
“Even after we had the correct number, it took a few calls to get anywhere… then information was broken at best,” Mr Stephenson said.
When he finally spoke with Racing the Planet vice president Samantha Fanshawe in the early hours of the day after the tragedy, her first words were, “I am now ready to fully co-operate with FESA.”
“In my mind, that is an admission they had not been co-operating,” he said.
He also took aim at local mango farmer and gyrocopter pilot John Storey, who volunteered to assist organisers and first raised the alarm that a bushfire was heading in the direction of runners.
Mr Stephenson said Mr Storey passed on the urgent information to another helicopter pilot who was filming the race for an adventure sports TV show, but then flew back to Kununurra without contacting FESA.
Mr Storey “most definitely” should have contacted FESA, he said.
“If there had been a helicopter looking at the safety of runners instead of filming it, we wouldn’t be here today,” Mr Stephenson said.
FESA would have sent its own helicopter if it had been told on the afternoon of the bushfire that some runners had been seriously burnt, but it had instead been informed that people were no longer in the gorge area where the fire had swept through.
The tragedy came down to poor planning and communication.
“Had we been given notice one month before the event … we would usually go through a series of meetings and phone hook-ups to mitigate any risk occurring,” Mr Stephenson concluded.