High fuel loads and catastrophic fire conditions were major factors behind the disastrous Esperance bushfires of November 2015 according to an independent report, which found the response to the fires was ‘broadly well managed’.
Declaring the Esperance bushfires unstoppable during its five hour run through farmland, the report by Nous Group found that increases in the number of acres cropped and a favourable farming season led to higher yielding crops, providing a readily combustible fuel load for the fire.
Catastrophic weather conditions caused unusually high fire intensity and fire ‘spread’ for the Cascades, Merivale and Cape Arid fires, with Cascades being the hottest grassland fire in WA’s, possibly Australia’s, known history.
Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Wayne Gregson spoke about the report from Esperance where he has been discussing the findings, including with the family of local hero Kym Curnow who died in the fire.
“These fires were relentless and devastating. The whole state of Western Australia is mourning the loss of four lives that were taken too soon. I have deep sympathy for the Esperance community and particularly the families of the deceased.
“The situation in Esperance escalated very quickly. Once this fire reached its peak no amount of water – whether from planes or from direct attack – could have stopped it in its tracks. Attempts would have been like pouring a glass of water on a raging bonfire.”
Given the increasing risk posed by bushfires across the country, the review found the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES), Parks and Wildlife and local governments need to continue to improve the way they work together. This work is already being undertaken.
Key recommendations include paying more attention to local knowledge, a unified approach to bushfire risk mitigation and response, and resolving the system and process issues that have hindered the management of recent incidents.
Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Wayne Gregson has welcomed the recommendations, saying that they reinforce the strategic direction being taken by the Department.
“We have been on a journey of reform since DFES was created in 2011. These recommendations tell us we’re heading in the right direction.
“Work is already underway to ensure we are joined up with other agencies and making the most of advances in technology to introduce new systems and processes.”
The report also calls for greater unification of the fire sector – a call that may be viewed unfavourably by those calling for a separate Rural Fire Service.
Commissioner Wayne Gregson said he supported the report’s call for greater unity and integration.
“I have spoken to many people who tell me they want less bureaucracy, less red tape and less cost to the tax payer. The best way to achieve this is by working together.
“The recommendations will require input from all those involved in bushfires including DFES, Parks and Wildlife and Local Governments.”
The full report can be found at DFES.
Esperance Bushfires Facts and figures
- The Esperance bushfires were a series of bushfires caused by lightning strikes between 15 and 17 November 2015 in the Cascade, Merivale and Cape Arid areas.
- The response to the Cascade and Merivale fires was initially managed by the Shire of Esperance and was then brought under the management of a single multi-agency Incident Management Team (IMT) on 17 November, jointly managed by DFES, the Department of Parks and Wildlife and Local Government.
- The Cape Arid fire, which was being managed by Parks and Wildlife, was brought under the management of the single multi-agency IMT on 19 November.
- The Esperance bushfires had a significant impact on the local community, including the tragic loss of four lives as well as two homes, various other structures and widespread agricultural losses.
- The Esperance bushfires burnt through more than 300,000 hectares, an area 750 times the size of Kings Park.
- On Tuesday 17 November, there were 111 incidents occurring throughout Western Australia including more than 50 bushfires.
- More than 200 people worked to bring the fires under control. These people included DFES firefighters and volunteers from Bush Fire Brigades, Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service, Volunteer Fire and Emergency Service, Parks and Wildlife, and pastoralists.
- On 17 November 2015, the Fire Danger Index for the region peaked at 222, which indicates that conditions were among the most severe ever experienced in southern Australia.