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Fierce bushfire razes homes near Margaret River
Fierce bushfire razes homes near Margaret River

UPDATE 11pm: Margaret River is tonight bracing itself for a third day of bushfire chaos as pointed questions were asked of authorities as to why a controlled burn was contemplated ahead of such catastrophic fire conditions.

As dozens of homes burned in the idyllic beachside communities of Prevelly and Gnarabup, Premier Colin Barnett declared Margaret River a natural disaster zone while promising a full inquiry into how the disaster happened.

Conditions in the area have eased tonight with winds moving westerly.

Overnight crews will be concentrating on establishing new containment lines around the freshly burnt areas while strengthening other existing containment lines.

Another big contingent of fire crews, trucks and heavy machines have been brought in from a wide area of the South West.

A community meeting will be held at 10am on Friday in the Margaret River Cultural Centre to update the fire situation in the area.

Historic Wallcliffe House is among several properties destroyed by the blaze today, and the Mirabeena retirement village has been evacuated. Margaret River Hospital remains open and the Emergency Department is operating as normal. Yesterday five patients were discharged and two patients were transferred from the hospital as a precaution.

Hundreds of people flocked to the town's recreation centre at 3pm for an update and gasped as they heard the news that Prevelly was threatened.

Department of Conservation and Environment incident controller Roger Armstrong confirmed several homes and a shopping centre in Prevelly were on fire and he expected further serious damage.

He urged residents south of the coastal hamlet to begin evacuation and take no chances with their safety.

People taking refuge on the beach at Gnarabup and Prevelly are being moved by Augusta volunteer marine rescue.

Nobody has been reported missing or injured so far.

Mr Armstrong said authorities were on "a knife edge" as the situation worsened.

"Later today continues to be a dicey effort," he said. "We're not out of the woods. We'll continue under this warm northerly influence for the rest of the day."

Shire president Ray Colyer said the town needed to focus on what was in front of it tonight and tomorrow, rather than point blame.

The Lord Mayor's Distress Relief Fund has been activated.

Premier Colin Barnett told the crowd he was sorry for the losses many families had suffered.

He thanked the more than 400 firefighters battling the blaze.

The area would be declared a natural disaster zone.

Earlier, Mr Armstrong urged everyone in Prevelly over to Bussell Highway and down to Redgate Beach to evacuate immediately - a State alert is to be issued shortly.

He said the fire is moving now in a southerly direction at about 2km an hour which is “very significant”.

Mr Armstrong said at the control base that firefighters had suffered “fairly serious setbacks” in containing the blaze on Thursday as north-northwest winds gusting at 65km/h pushed flames south.

“That’s the kicker,” he said.

Mr Armstrong said there was a high likelihood of further house losses in Prevelly where people were going from house to house to try to keep flames at bay.

“I’m pretty sure we will get some houses damaged to some degree,” he said.

DEC has confirmed that about 30 houses, including nine holiday cottages, and five sheds have been destroyed in the blaze.

However there are no fears for the Margaret River town site, although the wind has picked up and the town is covered in dust and smoke.

Residents who have lost their house will find out this afternoon if they are able to visit the remains of their homes later today.

Fifty-five people stranded on a beach overnight had to be rescued by jetski.

DEC confirmed late this afternoon that the stranded residents, from the coastal town of Prevelly, had been ferried by jetski from their local beach to a waiting search and rescue craft offshore.

From there, they were taken to nearby Gracetown, just up the coast, from where they were bussed to an emergency welfare centre in the main rallying town of Margaret River.

A DEC spokesman said the sea rescue effort was successful, with no one injured.

LATEST ADVICE

At 6pm DEC issued an emergency warning for people in the area south of Carters Road, north of Forest Grove Road and Conto Road on the west side of Bussell Highway including both sides of Caves Road.

Evacuations have occurred south of Burnside Rd, North of Harrington Rd (also called Exmoor Rd), West of Umberto, Kevill, Sandpit and Boodjidup Rd. Further evacuations are occurring south of Harrington Rd (also called Exmoor Rd) and west of Boodjidup Rd.

WHAT TO DO• It is too late to leave, you need to take shelter in your home and actively defend it.
• Take shelter inside furthest away from the fire front and make sure you can easily escape.
• It is best to shelter in a room with two exits and a water supply such as a kitchen or laundry.
• You must seek shelter before the fire arrives as the very hot radiant heat will kill you well before the flames reach you. Protect yourself with long sleeves, long trousers and strong leather boots.
• If your home catches on fire and the conditions inside become unbearable, you need to get out and go to an area that has already been burnt.
• Do not leave in a vehicle or on foot as this is deadly.A bushfire WATCH AND ACT has been issued for people in the greater fire area, including all areas south of Redgate Road and west of Bussell Highway.People living or travelling in the area need to be alert and aware of fire and other emergency services personnel working on site and take their advice. The fire threat remains and may worsen at any time and people in this area still need to have their bushfire survival plan in action.BUSHFIRE BEHAVIOUR:DEC said the fire has crossed the Margaret River mouth and was burning at Surfer’s Point to the north of Prevelly. It has also hit the south-eastern edge of Gnarabup townsite.Spot fires have developed in the vicinity of Terry Drive and are burning aggressively in a south easterly direction and have crossed Redgate Road in the vicinity of Redgate Beach.Winds are moving westerly during the evening, with conditions easing. The fire has burnt through 2400ha since it started yesterday.COMMUNITY MEETING Premier Colin Barnett has just arrived at Margaret River and is expected to have a private tour of the scene before addressing the community at 3pm.Hundreds of distressed residents poured into Margaret River recreation centre this morning to learn the full impact of the horrific bushfire still bearing down on the town.Dozens still have no idea how damaged their properties are or whether they will have a home to return to.Earlier the Department of Environment and Conservation revealed the prescribed burn which got out of control and destroyed at least 20 homes was started two months ago.As firefighters brace for another tough day with conditions similar to yesterday and 65km/h winds predicted, fire incident controller Roger Armstrong said the prescribed burn was started on September 6.He told a media briefing that once a prescribed burn started it had to be maintained until it was safe.
Water bombers fight fires approaching a Gnarabup home. Pic: Bill McCarthy
The fire was managed over several weeks but it escaped the boundary yesterday, he said.Shire president Ray Colyer was visibly distressed as he addressed the crowd and tried to give perspective to the damage inflicted."We're a strong community, we've had fires before... I'm sure that the country spirit is strong and there's certainly going to be people who will need comforting support," he said."The community's been great. We've had so much offers of support, it's very humbling to know that the people of the Augusta-Margaret River shire understand the difficult times the people are going through."Did you take photos? send them in or MMS to 0402 228 221The majority of questions from the crowd related to trying to pinpoint exactly which roads and areas had been impacted by fire.Roger Armstrong said he did not want people to find out about possible loss of property through the media and all attempts were being made to contact impacted residents personally.At the end of the meeting, Mr Colyer said everyone who had lost a home so far had now been contacted.Burnside man Corey Jones said the situation was surreal.“It’s a bit weird, I’ve just phoned a friend and told them I’m going down into town to find out if the house is still there,” he said.
Distressed residents at this morning's community meeting in Margaret River. Pic: Nic Ellis / WA News
STATE GOVERNMENT COMPENSATIONThe State Government has offered an immediate $3000 payment to residents who lost their homes in yesterday’s blaze. Mr Barnett revealed this morning homeowners who properties suffered damage would get $1000.The cash is a first-up payment to help with food, clothing and general necessities as an offer of short-term relief to those who were left homeless.Mr Barnett said confirmed this morning there would be some sort of investigation into the blaze. However the parameters of the investigation were not confirmed. DEC BRIEFINGAt the earlier media briefing, Mr Armstrong said the priority for the day was to maintain containment of the fire which was 80 per cent tracked.“The only part we haven’t got tracked is north of the Margaret River mouth, north of Preston town site,” he said.“Obviously, that is a concern for us today with north-side winds, so a lot of our efforts will be focused on the town of Prevelly Park.“The other area of concern is on the eastern side.”Volunteers and officials from brigades across WA, along with police, the DEC, FESA, Red Cross, the Department of Child Protection and a host of other community agencies are involved in the firefighting effort.Mr Armstrong confirmed 19 homes have been destroyed or badly damaged, mostly in the Wallcliffe subdivision.The only access to Prevelly Park is through the bushfire. The area is closed to traffic today.There is still an unknown number of people stranded on the beach.Mr Armstrong said 60 prescribed burns had been carried out in the area in the past month, 40 of which were near "assets".He rejected suggestions the department started the burn during a catastrophic fire warning and that it relied on weather forecasts from the weather bureau.Mr Armstrong said homes were still at risk from the fire.Firefighters expected cooler conditions later in the day but "we have several hours before that", he said.On a day one experienced firefighter called "as bad as they come", flames carved a path of destruction around the coastal hamlets of Ellensbrook to the north and Prevelly to the south of the South West tourist town yesterday.
Tim Foley of DEC inspects damage to bush near Ellensbrook. Pic: Nic Ellis / WA News
Up to 90 per cent of the fire is contained but not controlled out to existing breaks but the Department of Environment and Conservation is warning that the high winds could cause the fire to flare out of control again.More than 400 fire personnel from DEC, local volunteer bushfire brigades and Fire and Rescue Service are on the scene and worked through the night.Rotary and fixed-wing water bombers will today assist ground crews. A large number of fire trucks and heavy machines have been sent to the area from around the South West.Local disaster and community welfare workers are assisting the community.Deirdre Baldock from Beachside Prevelly Villas on Vattos Way said the wind was very strong and the conditions were hot and horrible.She left the property at 10am. A friend of hers with fire fighting experience had stayed behind to defend it.As of 2pm she knew that her property was still safe. “So far it’s ok, it just depends how it’s moving,” she said. “When I left home it was looking horrible – a very think wall coming and wind going crazy.“It was not the place to be.”Yesterday, homes in Wooditch Road and Orchid Ramble, off Wallcliffe Road, are understood to have been the worst hit. It was believed that historic Ellensbrook Homestead had been lost, but it was unscathed.Hundreds of people from Prevelly, Burnside, Kilcarnup, Wilderness and Gnarabup were still waiting for news last night on whether their homes had survived after authorities ordered them to evacuate shortly before midday.Surfpoint Backpackers' Hostel manager Will Carter said more than 200 Prevelly residents had gathered on the beach near the Margaret River mouth after being forced out of their homes.Another 140 people were sheltering at an evacuation centre in Margaret River.More than 100 career and volunteer firefighters as well as water bombers battled to control the blaze, which flared when embers from a prescribed burn blew ahead of their containment lines.Police have advised leavers travelling to the Margaret River region to make alternative arrangements.Leavers travelling to the Dunsborough or Busselton area are advised they can travel as planned. Police say the impact on leavers is expected to be minimal.COMMUNITY ANGERAnger is growing in the community that the fire emergency was caused by prescribed burns that got out of control.Frustration and chaos reigned at a heated public meeting last night when the Fire and Emergency Services Authority admitted it could give only “flimsy” information to fire-stricken locals. Last night, deputy incident controller Chris Widmer told nearly 150 people — most in shock — he was still struggling to find out what was going on at the Margaret River fire front. “We hope to be able to speak to people who have suffered losses as soon as we can,” he said.“Our aim is to consolidate the fire lines tonight.”Mr Widmer conceded he had been put in the role a short time before he was told he was to front the meeting.For those who feared they had lost homes, it was not enough after waiting an hour for FESA officials to address the meeting.
Pic: Asha, Margaret River
Residents in Orchid Ramble told the meeting they only received warning text messages hours after the fires forced them to flee.Orchid Ramble resident Lane Alver said FESA was fortunate most people at the meeting were too shocked to be angry.“This fire should never have happened in the first place,” he said, furious over prescribed burns.“We had new additions and they’re gone, our house is probably a shell.”“This is extremely frustrating and they haven’t told us anything.“We’re not going to be able to get any sleep tonight.”Locals tried to comfort each other, while many tried to indentify their homes on aerial footage from TV stations.Mr Widmer said it could be tomorrow before residents knew if they had homes to return to and he did not know when they could go back.
Pic: Seven News
Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan said the State Emergency Co-Ordination Group was on standby and an emergency situation had been declared to help agencies on the ground.The SECG met yesterday afternoon and last night to prepare for the worst-case scenario today.DEC deputy bushfire control officer David Holland said firefighters had been faced with an uphill task because the fire was being fanned by hot, dry, north-easterly winds and significant fuel loads in the heavily forested area.He warned that affected residents were unlikely to be let back into their properties until at least noon today as search and rescue officers assessed the damage. "It's as bad as it gets - not good," Mr Holland said.Amid the disaster yesterday, local residents described plumes of thick smoke that left the area in darkness and walls of flames up to "a couple of storeys high".Many were also worried about whether they would have a home or business to return to, and they were furious with DEC.Gnarabup man Peter Ryan said: "I'm bewildered as to why you would be burning off at this time of year. Questions will have to be asked."
Eagles legend Dean Kemp amongst those forced into evacuation centres. Pic: Nic Ellis / WA News