Saving WA towns from a summer of raging infernos fell to teams of exhausted heroes.
It was an onslaught that wouldn’t end: fire after fire after fire, rising up to threaten homes and force evacuations, being beaten into submission by exhausted firefighters only for another to spring up somewhere else.
On at least 40 days this summer, there has been a serious fire threatening a WA community. Often there was more than one at a time and some burned for days, stretching firefighting resources from Bullsbrook to Northcliffe, from Baldivis to Boddington, Wanneroo to Waroona.
Firefighters say it has been the biggest fire season in recent memory. In the first six weeks o the year, 1,185 bushflres were reported, including many started by an unusual lightning-filled trough that lingered in hot, windy weather.
At brigades across the South West and metropolitan area, records are tumbling.
Firefighters worked together in their thousands to save, at a conservative estimate, hundreds of homes and lives.
Though a small number of homes, some sheds and valuable farmland were destroyed or damaged and more than 158,000ha — roughly 396 times as big as Kings Park — was burnt, it is considered a lucky escape compared with what might have been.
It took a gigantic effort as firefighters spent days in heat and noise and smoke.
Exhaustion had already started to set in when WA’s biggest fire in recent memory broke out at Northcliffe with another in Lower Hotham.
WA authorities took the rare step of asking for help from interstate and rallied a massive force that slowly but surely contained the blazes, much to the relief of imperilled communities in their paths.
Volunteer firefighter Steve Goedecke had already spent days fighting fires, including major blazes at Bullsbrook, Red Gully and Baldivis, in the week before he picked up the phone on a Sunday afternoon to a call for a crew to go to the unfolding inferno at Northcliffe.
One of 14 fires sparked by a lightning strike in the area, it took hold in the dense, heavily wooded Shannon National Park, almost 20km outside the town of about 400 people.
The flames were 20m high and throwing embers 500m in front as it advanced through the bush. Authorities feared it could wipe the “undefendable” town off the map.
Mr Goedecke, who is semi-retired, was due to welcome his two latest grandchildren any day but he threw a few clothes together and was at the Jandakot brigade station within 10 minutes.
Jason Robertson was driving home from his girlfriend’s house, so he was already packed. When he got the call, the young crane technician phoned his supervisor and got the all-clear to head to the fire for a minimum three days.
They climbed into their big tanker and met the convoy heading from the city on the three-hour journey to the fire zone. As they drove south in darkness, Mr Robertson could see the glow.
“We must be close, 10 or 15 minutes away by the look of it,” he thought. They were still an hour out.
As they drove, about 130 volunteer and Department of Parks and Wildlife firefighters were trying to tackle a fire front in Lower Hotham that was 10km long and throwing embers into rising winds.
To the west, 150 firefighters were finally getting on top of a blaze that had forced the late-night evacuation of Waroona after more than two days battling it in a wind described as “cyclonic”.
In the days before that, there had been dual emergency fires threatening homes around Pinjar in Perth’s north and Baldivis in the south.
In the week before that, more than 250 firefighters fought to protect homes in the path of a fire that burnt 7,000ha in Bullsbrook, remaining at an emergency level for three days.
It had been a busy month and they were all tired.
At the Waroona fire, the incident controller rated firefighter fatigue as the major challenge, up there with the wind. But things were about to go from bad to worse.
By Monday, the Boddington fire had broken containment lines and the Northcliffe fire had chewed through 20,000ha and was closing in on the town.
Experts from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services and DPaW did the calculations based on weather, fuel loads and their resources, including how many firefighters were rested enough to be deployed.
Both Northcliffe and Boddington had the potential to be disastrous. WA’s firefighters had battled hundreds of fires in the past week in windy, hot, taxing conditions.
That weather and the potential for more lightning would not abate for another few days at least.
They needed back-up.
Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Wayne Gregson called for reinforcements; almost 140 firefighters and support staff arrived soon after from Victoria, followed by 160 from NSW, the ACT and Northern Territory, and later, about 80 from Queensland.
DPaW closed 18 national parks across WA to free up crews from as far afield as the Kimberley and Goldfields and to reduce the risk of a visitor sparking an accidental fire.
Of their 700 people equipped to fight fires, 683 were called up. The others were on leave.
DPaW head of fire management services Mike Meinema said the realisation that both fires would be long-running and that resources were already stretched was the key to requesting interstate help.
Keith Low, senior policy officer in Mr Meinema’s team, said that as they mapped the fires and planned upcoming shifts according to guidelines to manage firefighter fatigue, “it didn’t take us long to realise we were not going to be able to fill those shifts without some external assistance”.
DFES deputy commissioner Lloyd Bailey said there was concern that both fires could escalate much further than they did, pushing the existing firefighting force beyond their limits. The numbers at Northcliffe had more than doubled to over 200 but the fire was spreading rapidly in fickle winds and heavy fuels, once trebling in size overnight.
Boddington had the potential to go through Williams, Collie, Dwellingup or Harvey if it broke out in any direction.
“It was important to manage fatigue among the volunteer and career firefighters, who will always put up their hand to go the extra mile, and there was concern from DPaW about their firefighters not having respite,” he said.
The arrival of interstate crews was timely relief as they spread out across both blazes and gave local firefighters a rest.
Most of Northcliffe’s residents fled to Pemberton and waited anxiously for news. Up to 40 stayed, hoping to defend their homes.
Residents of Windy Harbour were told to shelter on the beach and prepare for possible evacuation by boat or helicopter as the fire closed the only road out of town.
In Northcliffe, Mr Goedecke and Mr Robertson worked the night shift, spending 6pm to 6am in subdivisions on the outskirts of town, protecting homes and properties with about a dozen other crews.
“We didn’t lose any houses or sheds or anything,” Mr Goedecke said. “But it was hard because you couldn’t tell what the wind was going to do.”
“You would think, ‘We’ve got all this’, then the wind changes direction and 20km on the other side, all hell breaks loose.”
At the height of the fires, more than 250 people with 90 appliances worked on the Northcliffe fire and 150 people with 60 appliances were at Boddington. The army was called to build a tent city for about 200 people in Manjimup.
DFES estimates that firefighters, including volunteer, career and those from interstate agencies, put in more than 96,000 hours at the two fires.
The 25 waterbombers operating dropped more than 10 million litres — an unprecedented effort from the aerial firefighting fleet.
Mr Meinema said firefighting agencies worked closely and with favourable weather changes and the fires running into areas of low fuel, including from previous fires and prescribed burns, they began to gain control of the blazes.
“We all acknowledge that we can’t fight these big fires alone. We just don’t have the numbers,” he said.
“We all have expertise that is complementary to a large degree.”
“In Northcliffe, you had a clear urban interface with the town where the DFES career firefighters use their experience with structure fires. Our people are better suited to bush firefighting, so that was where we focused our efforts.”
“The volunteers are a valuable resource because they can go across both.”
Mr Bailey said crews and volunteers came from all over the State to contribute to the “very big co-ordinated effort” needed.
Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades vice-president David Gossage said volunteers across WA were weary after the busiest season in many years but were extremely proud of what they achieved.
But he urged more commitment to and support for prescribed burning to reduce fuel loads in risky areas, saying it was the most effective way to minimise uncontrollable fires.
Last week, when Agenda visited the Jandakot brigade, members were also reflecting on an intense few months.
The most call-outs in a financial year was previously 55. This year, with four months to go, they have had about 90. Their 42 active volunteers completed 2,000 hours last month alone.
Less visible is the co-ordination work behind the scenes. While Mr Goedecke and Mr Robertson were at Northcliffe, brigade captain Shane Harris and first lieutenant Jarrad Fowler were working out who could replace them that week and scrambling to get another crew to the Boddington fire.
They also had to make sure they had enough people left behind to tackle local fires while liaising with the bosses and families of volunteers deployed.
On any given week, even without a huge fire, the phone calls can start in the middle of the night. Last week, Mr Harris was woken at 2am to get a crew to a fire in Hamilton Hill and had four hours sleep before work at his building company.
“This season has been extreme for everybody,” he said. “It hasn’t been seen in the history of any of our guys and I have been doing this for 20-something years.
“People are becoming pretty drawn out. Most employers are really good but eventually, some are small businesses and they can’t afford to say, ‘Off you go, see you in a week and we’re happy to pay you’, so it ends up coming out of holiday or sick pay.”
“The partners of the volunteers are equally important. They are the ones who get woken in the middle of the night, who wonder if their partner is coming home anytime soon, who might put a nice roast dinner on the table and then they’re out the door or have them having to go to a fire at 11am on Christmas Day.
“But the guys want to be there for the community, to help protect them. That is our role.”
“Not many of the volunteers want to be paid and are more than happy to do what they do for free. I get a lot out of knowing I have helped someone, saved their house or their property or their animal.”
“That is a real reward.”
When the volunteer firefighters opened lunch packs at the Northcliffe fire, they found notes written by local school children. During major fires, crews often see big “thank you signs on the side of the road. A grateful resident recently dropped a carton of beer off at the door for the Jandakot brigade.
“Some days you think, ‘Why am I doing this?’ But then you get something like that and you realise, ‘That’s why’,” Mr Harris said.
Katherine Fleming | The Weekend West – Agenda | 7 March 2015