Last Thursday did not begin any differently to any day from the previous two weeks. At 28 degrees it was abnormally warm for May, the skies were clear and the light northerly wind we have been experiencing for the last few weeks was also uncommon for this time of year.
In hindsight, we might have had a hint of things to come when the weather bureau forecast strong winds and rain although there was little evidence of an approaching weather system as the day matured.
Many of our local Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades spent the day attending escaped private burns – something which frustratingly has become an all too common occurrence since the lifting of the restricted burning period in Albany’s SW sector. By the end of the day, except for monitoring of several larger burns, most of the crews were returning home.
But as night fell, our fate became clear.
The unseasonal northerly strengthened and radio traffic increased, peaking at around 2130 when it became obvious to many that the volunteers who had returned home a few hours earlier would soon be kissing their kids goodnight and heading back out in appliances, unlikely to get a moment of sleep: the winds had carried some fires past containment lines and many were spreading out of control and moving fast.
By midnight, crews were battling multiple fires spread over a large area, all being pushed along by gale-force winds. Gusts of up to 102 km/h at 0200 confirmed the forecast for strong winds but the predicted rain never came, leaving hundreds of volunteers battling fires moving too fast to get ion front of.
Multiple Emergency warnings issued for the main fires including those in Redmond, Napier and the South Stirling Range. Additional crews were mobilised, with volunteers from Katanning, Cranbrook, Tambellup and other nearby towns leaving their families in bed well before dawn. Our friends and colleagues from Denmark were a notable absence because they had their own challenges, already fully engaged protecting nearby lives and property under threat from fires fanned by the same winds now terrorising Albany.
By morning, a DFES incident management team from Perth and fellow volunteer crews from as far north as Wanneroo and Kalamunda and west as Margaret River (more than 76 volunteer brigades in total) were here and had our tired backs.
It is impossible to adequately explain just how it feels when reinforcements arrive in a combat situation like this. There’s never time during the fight to really think about it, but as I write this piece now, it gives me goosebumps to think about just how fortunate WA is to have a network of so many highly skilled people who are willing to jump out of bed and travel hundreds of kilometres to stand between life-threatening danger and someone else’s family, often at significant financial cost to themselves through lost wages etc.
The WA Volunteer Bush Fire Service is truly invaluable and the people who give so much to make it what it is are just beyond words. It is not only those in the trucks and on the end of the hoses but all the support teams, catering, logistics, incident management and importantly, the local community who support us when the flames and cameras are gone. And for most of us, the very first people who provide the majority of that support are our incredible families who not only allow, but encourage us to do the work we do almost always with a sad smile and enormous burts of pride.
“Be careful,” they say as we leave them alone, listening to the radio for updates and hopefully, no bad news.
“Of course,” we reply knowing that we not only have their support, but tens of thousands of highly skilled volunteer colleagues watching our backs to make sure we return soon.
These incidents have again confirmed that the dedication and work ethic of our emergency service volunteers is nothing short of inspirational and must never be taken for granted.