Weather conditions have eased for firefighters battling raging bushfires in Western Australia, but residents have been told to remain on high alert.
A “napalm-like” inferno almost entirely wiped out the small town of Yarloop, destroying 121 homes and gutting heritage buildings.
A missing family of three were accounted for, but authorities said on Friday evening another three people were missing.
Although weather conditions have eased, the Bureau of Meteorology has forecast hot and dry conditions for the Gascoyne Inland with fresh west and northwesterly winds throughout Saturday.
An emergency warning remains for residents at Waroona, Harvey, Preston Beach, Lake Clifton, Myalup and surrounding areas.
The bushfires have been ravaging those areas since Wednesday, forcing hundreds of people to evacuation centres in Pinjarra and Australind.
The blaze, known as the Waroona fire, had burnt more than 58,000 hectares by Friday night, after it was sparked by a lightning strike at Lane Pool Reserve, near Dwellingup.
Residents were at a loss as they tried to comprehend the severity of the destruction, with Yarloop’s population of 545 losing homes, historic buildings, workshops, factories, the post office, a fire station and part of a school.
One firefighter described the fire “like the war when the napalm bombers go through”.
Reports said that flames had reached up to 50 metres high in the state forest.
On Saturday fire crews said calmer winds and high humidity had helped slow the spread of the bushfire, but an emergency warning remained in place.
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One Yarloop local said there was “bugger all left”, while another said the fire just couldn’t be stopped.
“Once it hit the town there was no stopping it because the houses were just exploding,” Ron Sackville told AAP from Yarloop, around 130km south of Perth.
“They were just going, one after the other, down the street here.
“The town’s absolutely devastated.”
Yarloop resident Kate Barry said she lost her home in the blaze, but had no idea how bad the bushfire was until a local firefighter told her she had to evacuate.
She and her four children, aged between six and 19, managed to flee with their family photos, but everything else was most likely destroyed when the home was razed.
Ms Barry said her children could still not comprehend that they had lost everything. “But at least we’re alive,” she said.
Volunteer firefighter, Jesse Puccio, said the blaze was one of the worst he had ever seen, and when it flared overnight it was unstoppable.
“It just got out of control around 6:30pm, 7pm, … after that it just ripped through, it was quite scary,” he said.
“It’s like when you see in the war when the napalm bombers go through.”
Fire ‘unpredictable’ in these conditions
Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Wayne Gregson said on Friday that the ‘very unpredictable’ blaze was causing problems for firefighters.
“Conditions have been extremely difficult,” particularly overnight,” Commissioner Greyson told reporters on Friday.
“The fire has been very unpredictable and has been fanned by huge wind gusts with very little drop in temperature.
“I must take my hat off to the emergency services personnel and the firefighters who did a tremendous job under very difficult circumstances last night.”
WA Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis added: “To lose one third of a township, one-third of those houses… [it] is obviously going to be very challenging for that community”.
“I want them to know that the government will be doing absolutely everything humanly possible to support them and to help them recover from it,” Mr Francis said.
Evacuees at the Pinjarra emergency centre, who fled the flames, had also been ordered inside after reports at least one man was struck by lightning.
Meanwhile, a firefighter in his 20s was taken to Peel Health Campus after suffering burns to his upper torso, but was later released.
Patients were also evacuated from Harvey Hospital as the town remained under threat.
Western Power said electricity had been cut to 7,000 homes, amid unconfirmed reports that hundreds of power poles had been destroyed.
Festival cancelled, more windy weather to come
Southbound festival has been transformed into a fundraising concert for Western Australian bushfire victims.
Disclosure, Bloc Party and Birds of Tokyo will headline at the HBF Stadium in Mount Claremont on Sunday after the Southbound festival in Busselton, in Perth’s south, was cancelled over safety concerns.
Acting WA Premier Kim Hames said the concert’s profits would go directly to a bushfire appeal for the victims of fires that razed the state’s southwest.
“(It) is a worthwhile cause and a very real way of channelling some of the grief into a positive outcome,” he said.
Bureau of Meteorology spokesman Neil Bennett said the forecast was for increased winds and thunderstorms with lightning expected in the area overnight Friday.
“They will be picking up in strength and then we’ll see them gusty in the morning first thing, slowly easing as we go through the morning,” Mr Bennett said.
“This is a very, very difficult fire to predict exactly what’s going to be happening.
“The strengthening winds as well will help to fan those fires, so really, really tricky conditions at the moment.”
Mr Bennett said the bushfire created its own weather system.
“During the course of the afternoon we saw quite a spectacular development on the fire front itself. A cloud developed within the fire zone. That cloud built to such an extent that it created its own thunderstorm,” he said.
“It generated lightening in the area all formed by the area itself, so it’s generating its own weather system. To see an actual thunderstorm developing in a fire situation like this isn’t something that happens all that often.
“The results of that are quite spectacular, it can be seen from space. The system itself is huge.”
Residents told it could be up to five days before going home
More than 100 Waroona residents in an evacuation centre in Pinjarra have been told to find emergency accommodation in town, as it will be three to five days before they can return to their homes.
DFES Incident Controller Greg Mair said the South Western Highway could be closed for a few weeks because a wooden bridge at Samson Brook had sustained severe damage.
Harvey Shire president Tania Jackson said people were distraught, but the full scope of the tragedy may not have had time to sink in.
“It’s really a wait and see at the moment. If the losses we’re hearing about are extensive as they are, it’s life-changing, it will certainly mean a real difference in the future of those places,” she said.
“At some point in the future, the emergency will be over and we can really take stock.”
– with ABC/AAP