Australia–– Authorities are predicting another severe bushfire season in WA’s south-west after a dry winter has resulted in the worst possible scenario – heavy, tinder-dry fuel loads.
But have residents and authorities acted on the lessons learnt when bushfire ripped through the Margaret River area last November?
Forty properties were destroyed when a prescribed burn got out of control in an inaccessible area.
While the Department of Environment and Conservation says the state is more prepared for bushfires than last year, it has conceded south west burn-off targets have not been met due to weather conditions.
The department manages 2.5 million hectares of land in the region, most of which has not been burned in seven years.
The WA Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Wayne Gregson says authorities have already been dealing with an increased number of major fires over the past couple of weeks. “A very dry winter has caused significant soil dryness and dry fuel loads which cause fast moving fires with high levels of intensity – this is a very dangerous combination,” he said.
“This is going to be another very difficult season, but it is how we prepare and respond together as a community that will make the difference between survival or disaster.”
But as bushfire season gets underway, it is evident many have not taken heed of the warnings.
FESA superintendent John Tillman says the coastal town of Yallingup is a classic example of a highly vulnerable community, where only about 10 per cent of properties are prepared for this fire season.
“The reality is, if we get a fire in this area, we only have one road to get in and out,” he said.
“If the properties aren’t well prepared and people don’t get out in time, then there’s a huge risk to obviously properties but also life in this area as well.”
Mr Tillman says Yallingup is not alone and poor planning is common across the region but it’s the complacency of landowners, many of them absent landlords, that most concerns him.
On a recent tour of the area he highlighted a number of locations that still had not been properly prepared.
“What we’re standing on here is supposed to be an emergency access, an emergency firebreak, as you can see it’s well and truly overgrown,” he said.
“I certainly wouldn’t entertain putting an appliance into an access track like this.”
Stay or go?
Last November, some residents opted to escape to nearby shelters while others chose to stay and defend.
Jacquie Brown is an artist based in Margaret River who made the decision to stay and defend her property as last year’s bushfires approached.
“My heart was set on staying so my car never got packed, I was too busy trying to wet everything down to pack the car,” Ms Brown said.
“I don’t think I would have left really and in hindsight I was so glad I didn’t leave.”
She says the prospect of losing a lifetime’s worth of unseen artwork was too hard.
“Lots of work and my paintings, no-one has seen those paintings, they’re quite unique and I couldn’t leave them,” she said.
“It’s just like leaving your baby, I couldn’t do it.”
Ms Brown says her knowledge of the local roads, bush paths and escape routes was also crucial in her decision to remain with the house.
She says organising a plan in advance is vital.
“If you do have a plan it makes such a difference because you’ve sort of got a regiment to go by, if you don’t have that plan you just say, ‘well what do I do first’, there’s a list of 50 things to do and you don’t know what do first so you sort of just go around in circles,” she said.
Peter Fabrisi has been described as one of the most prepared residents in Margaret River.
An area of his house is glazed with laminated glass, meaning it does not shatter or explode into shards when in contact with flames.
When last year’s bushfire approached, he took the extreme measure of preparing his own underwater oxygen system which he used to survive when jumping into a neighbour’s pool.
“I made up a basic breathing apparatus which is one of my scuba tanks, I got my goggles and wherever I went that scuba tank went with me,” Mr Fabrisi told ABC Local Radio.
“I had the necessary equipment, the scuba gear wasn’t part of that plan it just evolved.”
He says his plan was to stay and defend the property as best he could for as long as he safely could.
“I always knew I had that [neighbour’s pool] as a refuge and that was quite clear on my mind that even at the start of it,” he said.
“If I did get out of my depth that was a place I could go to.
“There was a time, that last 10 metres of getting there I really didn’t think I was going to get there but I did and I managed to get into the pool.”
Mr Fabrisi said his preparation in the lead up to the bushfire played a significant role in protecting his house from any major damage.
“Me being there and having fire hoses aimed at it and keeping things wet and damp for as long as I could certainly contributed as well,” he said.
“I had enough devices on hand and thankfully we did a burn-off on the front of the land a few months earlier which was a big help.”
The Minister for Emergency Services, Troy Buswell, says the State Government may consider legislation forcing people to make their homes bushfire ready.
“We can’t have a fire truck down every driveway and that’s apparent with the losses that we’ve had in the last few years,” he said.
“It’s not through inaction of firefighters, their lives are on the line and they’re trying their best to protect the community.”
FESA’s acting south-west Superintendent, Chris Widmer, says residents should be preparing their properties now.
“If people look around their properties and find out how much combustible material there is, they can really do an assessment of how risky their environment is,” he said.
“Any work that people do now to reduce the amount of fuel around their properties from ember attack and also flame contact would mean that we have a chance of saving their home, otherwise we might have to walk away from it.”
He says residents should also decide now if, in the event of a fire, they will stay and defend their property or seek refuge elsewhere.
“My observation is that people tend to make the decision in the moment, rather than sitting down as a family and looking at what triggers would cause them to take certain action,” he said.
“There’ll be a common understanding around the family or the group of people for what triggers of action are required.”
Rangers and officers from the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River will begin inspecting fire breaks and bushfire preparation on properties in coming weeks.
The shire’s manager of community development and safety, Paul Gravette, is hopeful that residents are more aware of what they need to do after last year’s fires. “I think mentally they’re much more aware of the need to be prepared, now whether that translates into action, then that’s wait to be seen,” he said.