Bushfire threat level wasn’t raised until after four people died: Esperance inquest

26 March 2019

Published by https://www.canberratimes.com.au/

AUSTRALIA- Emergency services who were working to control an “unstoppable” bushfire in the Esperance region in 2015 did not raise the threat level of a fire until after four people had died, a coronial inquest has been told.

An inquest into the deaths of local farmer Kym Curnow and three farmhands Tom Butcher, Anna Winther and Julia Kohrs-Litche began at the Esperance courthouse on Monday, nearly four years after they all perished in the out-of-control blaze.

The inquest is investigating the circumstances of the 2015 Cascades bushfire and whether anything could have been done to prevent its 70km run through bushland and farmland over an 11-day period.

Counsel assisting the coroner Lyle Housiaux delivered his opening address to a packed courtroom, and said there were still questions that needed to be answered in order for families and friends to have the closure they deserved.

“This inquest will largely focus on why it was that the lives of four well-loved and respected people were lost,” he said.

“The inquest will also focus on whether more could have been done to protect these people from this danger by containing and managing the fire at an early stage.”

Mr Housiaux went on to outline what little was known about the events of November 17.

The Cascades fire started about 300 kilometres north of Esperance in the Lake Mends area.

It was at this time volunteer firefighter Kym Curnow was doorknocking his neighbours, warning them to make a decision about either escaping the fire or enacting their bushfire survival plan.

He arrived at a farming property owned by a family called the Campbells at 3.30pm.

Thomas Butcher, Anna Winther and Julia Kohrs-Lichte were all working for the local family and were in discussions about what to do about the approaching fire.

“[Mr Curnow] suggested that they should leave the property but the Campbells told Mr Curnow that they were staying to defend the property,” he said.

“Also around this time Thomas Butcher told Mr Campbell that he was concerned for his friend’s horse, Cougar, and had decided to leave the property and take the horse with him.

“He set about connecting the horse trailer to his Nissan Patrol vehicle and put the horse in the trailer. He also assisted the Campbells to ready their firefighting equipment.

“It appears that Anna Winther and Julia Kohrs-Lichte decided to leave the farm with Mr Butcher … it appears Mr Curnow left the farm around the same time in his vehicle.”

What happened next is still now the subject of the inquest, but WA Police detective sergeant Kevin Wisbey said he was called to investigate when two cars were found later on Tuesday evening.

It appeared the cars had both crashed into trees, and turned on their sides.

Mr Curnow, Mr Butcher, Ms Winther and Ms Kohrs-Litche were all found dead.

The inquest heard it was only almost an hour after this event that the fire threat rating was upgraded to an emergency warning – the highest threat level possible that dictates there was now an immediate threat to homes and lives and it was too late to leave.

The decision to upgrade the threat level after the four deaths was questioned by Shire of Esperance counsel Mark Trowel, who asked DFES district officer Andrew Duckworth if miscommunication meant management teams weren’t aware of the scale of the blaze at the time of the tragedy.

Mr Duckworth said he had not experienced miscommunication at that point, but gave his own characterisation of the fire.

“I have to say it was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced in terms of bushfires I’ve investigated, absolutely,” he said.

“It was crazy. I think all the crews that attempted to fight the fire that day were extremely brave and they definitely put their lives on the line.”

The inquest also heard from former Parks and Wildlife conservation and science officer Dr Neil Burrows, who also spoke about the intensity of the fire.

“It would be in the top one per cent of fastest spreading fires,” he said.

When it crossed the road Mr Curnow and the three farmhands were travelling on, Dr Burrows said it was likely the fire had moved so rapidly the flames had gone sideways across the road surface with a height of about four to five-metres.

Over 20 witnesses are set to give evidence over a five-day period, with the community expected to rally around those still affected by the 2015 fires.

WA Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan said his thoughts were with all those reliving the trauma.

“I’ve been to Scaddan on many occasions and you can see that the scars from those terrible fires still remain not just in the countryside, but also among the locals,” he said.

“To lose one of their own, who was trying to help others, and three guest workers, took a big toll. The recovery is still continuing.

“As the Scaddan volunteers have told me, the fires over that period were like nothing they had experienced before and demonstrate how unstoppable a catastrophic bushfire can be.

“That’s why this government has invested nearly $50 million into mitigation efforts so we can try to reduce the threat of any such future blazes.

“Esperance recently had a series of complex and serious fires, which were managed exceptionally well by volunteers firefighters, who came from around the state, the Shire of Esperance, DFES and other agencies.

“These recent fires showed the high level of cooperation and support that exists in our regions when it comes to fighting fires.

“I hope that this inquest will give some solace and answers to those who are still searching for a resolution.

“The government will also closely examine the coroner’s findings on what learnings may come from the inquest.”

The inquest continues.

What began as a small blaze that only sparked a bushfire advice alert from emergency services quickly escalated, and “catastrophic conditions” on the morning of November 17 saw the fire kick into a rapid and destructive run across bushland and into neighbouring farmland.

As it quickly approached people’s homes and properties in the Scaddan area, about 150 kilometres north of Esperance, the threat level was upgraded to a watch and act and a notification was sent out to affected locals.

A watch and act alert warns people to stay alert, and prepare to either leave or actively defend their homes.

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