Damning Esperance fire report released on anniversary of four deaths

The fire swept through 300,000 hectares. Photo: Esperance Express Tom Butcher was “living the dream” in Esperance before his life was tragically cut short by a bushfire. Photo: Supplied
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29-year-old Norwegian Anna Winther. Photo: Supplied

A year to the day since four people were killed during the catastrophic Esperance bushfires an independent report commissioned by the community has found desperate calls for water bombing support from local volunteers before the fire took hold were ignored.

The blaze, sparked by lightning in November 2015, tore through 300,000 hectares of land north of Esperance and killed three farm-hands – Julie Kohrs Lichter, Tom Butcher and Anna Winther -and Scaddan farmer Kym Curnow.

The Department of Fire and Emergency, in a report published in March, found high fuel loads and catastrophic fire conditions were major factors behind the disaster and that the response to the blaze was ‘broadly well managed’.

But a conflicting privately commissioned report to be tabled in state parliament on Thursday, compiled by law firm Pacer Legal, has uncovered major flaws in the state government’s response.

The report found calls for water bombers and earth moving equipment to make firebreaks by local volunteers and a politician during the first three days of the fire on November 15 to 17, were ignored.

It also found local pilots willing to fly their own planes over the fire were unable to do so due to “bureaucratic red tape”.

Confusion around the level of threat a fire must reach before aerial support is deployed was also blamed for the slow response while a communication breakdown between the Shire of Esperance and DFES meant each thought the other was in charge of the fire response for a 24-hour period to Tuesday evening.

Grass patch farmer Dan Sanderson told Radio 6PR on Thursday a response should have been mounted earlier and, failing that, local crop duster plane pilots should have been allowed to fly over the fires and dump water.

“The real issue with the fire bombers is they were requested on the Sunday, again on the Monday and again on the Tuesday morning…. nothing happened till after the Thursday,” he said.

“The response should have been on the Sunday and Monday when we had southerly winds and good conditions to fight a fire – that’s when we needed the water bombers.”

Mr Sanderson said local volunteers on the ground had a number of plans to contain the fire, but were unable to complete any of them due to the lack of support from DFES.

“People out there on the fire-front knew there was terrible conditions coming and they were getting no support, it was very frustrating for them,” he said.

“We had the [planes and pilots] there to do the [water-bombing] job, but we couldn’t use them because of bureaucratic red tape.”

The report also revealed local Liberal MP, Graham Jacobs claimed he tried to get ministerial approval to send water bombers to the fire earlier, but was told it hadn’t reached a serious enough level.

According to ABC News, the report makes 12 recommendations ranging from urgent improvements to aerial support and mobile phone coverage, to long-term changes regarding clearer legislation governing bushfire control.

The victims of the bushfire will be honoured at a community gathering at the Esperance foreshore to mark one year since their tragic deaths.

DFES is expected to receive a copy of the privately commissioned report on Thursday.  Follow WAtoday on Twitter

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