Some WA volunteer firefighters have continued to battle the massive West Australian bushfire despite losing their own homes, as the blaze threatens lives and homes for a sixth day.
More than 400 men and women have fought through exhaustion to relentlessly attack the fire, which has burnt through more than 72,000 hectares and all but destroyed the historical town of Yarloop.
Cooler temperatures and easing winds assisted fire crews to contain the blaze on Sunday, which has now been downgraded to a watch and act – but is not yet under control.
WA Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service Association executive officer Max Osborne praised the efforts of the volunteers, saying they were dealing with immense stress and pressure in the fire zone.
“If they’re going and seeing premises being burnt to the ground, you feel for the people, and on the basis that any one of those could have belonged to the volunteers themselves,” he said.
“It’s been really concerning at the moment to find out how many career and volunteer firefighters in particular have lost homes.”
He said in small country towns, it was up to volunteers to protect the community.
“The people that volunteer are probably sitting on a tractor in the next paddock,” he said.
“It’s the same people as you and me, volunteering their time to look after the community.”
‘It’s not all beer and skittles’
On Sunday morning, after a cool and relatively still night, exhaustion finally overcame a group of about 25 Harvey Fire Brigade volunteers, who fell asleep on the ground next to their truck.
The brigade’s Mick Reynolds said the tired volunteers managed to fit in a few hours of sleep wherever they could.
“It was a nice cool night under the stars and on a bit of lawn was about as comfortable as some people could get,” he said.
“Being very tired, they didn’t have any trouble sleeping.”
Mr Reynolds has donated his time to the local volunteer brigade for the past 20 years and said this fire was the worst he had seen.
“Just to experience fire rolling across the top of trees, and driving through smoke where you can’t see, it opens these guys’ eyes up that it’s not all beer and skittles being a firefighter, you’re putting your life in danger a lot of times,” he said.
“A couple of times we thought ‘gee, we’re getting ourselves into spots we shouldn’t’, so you’ve got to slow down and think about what you’re doing, because you’ve got loved ones at home, there’s no point getting injured as well.”
Mr Reynolds has driven through Yarloop several times and said the impact on the town, where 143 properties were destroyed, had been devastating.
“I went through for the first time the day after the fire and there was no-one there obviously, just a few chimneys burning and not much else,” he said.
“It’s very sad, it’s hard to put words on it to tell you the truth.”
Liberal MP Murray Cowper said residents will be dealing with the fall-out of the fires for several months.
“Don’t be mistaken … whilst we’ve got favourable conditions at the moment, we’re going to have to deal with jump-outs of fires for months ahead,” he said.
“Given the wide scope of the fire, it’s in all manner of country including swamp country, and deep forests.
“There’ll be trees that’ll be smouldering for months on end and until we get that winter drizzling rain, this fire won’t be out and we’ll be living with the potential of further outbreaks.
“This is a real tragedy, and it’s going to take a lot of cleaning up.”
Efforts to tackle bushfire enter sixth day
Interstate firefighters have helped relieve exhausted local volunteer and career firefighters as the blaze enters a sixth day.
But residents have been hard hit by the loss of two Yarloop men, aged 77 and 73, and are increasingly anxious to return to their homes.
There is no confirmed timeframe for reopening the Forrest Highway, which is a major arterial road.
Department of Parks and Wildlife incident controller Greg Mair said it could take some time to make the road safe.
“When Forrest Highway is reopened, possibly early next week, it will be reopened with speed restrictions and traffic management because it has been impacted by this bushfire,” he said.
Authorities said trees along the roadside needed to be checked.
Western Power is sending 80 trucks to the region to start repairing the electricity network.
More than 1,000 properties remain without power, while emergency generators are in Waroona and Preston Beach.