news

WA bushfires: German backpackers, farmer believed killed in Esperance blaze.

Three German backpackers and a farmer who tried to warn others about a bushfire burning out of control near Esperance in WA are believed to have died while still in their vehicles.

WA Fire Commissioner Wayne Gregson confirmed two men and two women had died in fires in the Grass Patch and Salmon Gums areas.

Commissioner Gregson said he understood one man was in one vehicle and the other victims were in a second.

The ABC understands one of the men who died was a local farmer who had been driving around neighbouring properties telling people to evacuate.

Farmers helping fight the fire have also told the ABC three German backpackers died in a second vehicle.

Police are yet to confirm the identities of those killed.

Esperance resident Andy Johnston told the ABC the farmer ensured his neighbours had escaped, before jumping in his own car to drive away.

Commissioner Gregson said he had no knowledge of earlier reports suggesting a further two deaths.

“There’s been no reports at this stage of any other injuries, or any other persons missing,” he said.

Mr Gregson said three buildings had been lost in the fires that were started by lightning strikes.

Esperance Shire President Victoria Brown said the remote coastal community was in shock after “the day from hell”.

“It was devastating,” she said.

“They got many of the fires out, but there were a few still burning, and they combined into an inferno.”

WA Premier Colin Barnett and Emergency Services Minister have arrived in Esperance.

Mr Barnett said he was devastated at the loss of four lives in the fires near Esperance.

Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis said people should put their thoughts and prayers with the Esperance community in particular, the family and friends of the deceased.

“It’s a terrible tragedy and its a horrible way to start what’s obviously going to be an incredibly challenging bushfire season.”

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who is at the APEC summit in the Philippines, said Australians applauded the firefighters and SES workers as they put their lives on the line to keep communities safe.

“Summer can be a very challenging and dangerous time in Australia as we know, and this is a tragic event,” he said.

“Four lives lost in this fire in Esperance, so as I said, the Federal Government is committed to providing the support that it does in these circumstances.

“I’ve spoken to the Justice Minister Michael Keenan who is responsible for emergency response and I’ve also spoken to the Premier of Western Australia … at this stage, Colin says he’s keeping federal agencies briefed, but … there is not a need for the involvement of federal agencies as such, but we are obviously ready to provide assistance whenever required.”

Commissioner Gregson said more than 300 people had been evacuated from Scaddan, Grass Patch, and Salmon Gums to Norseman to the north and Esperance to the south.

ADVERTISEMENT

Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) Regional Superintendent Trevor Tasker said the blaze at Salmon Gums was the worst he had ever seen.

“The wind and weather conditions … there was no stopping it,” he said.

Mr Tasker said the speed of the fire caught firefighters off-guard.

“It definitely wasn’t planned, it was on the spot and flying by the seat of your pants,” he said.

“It was moving at a rate of knots that you’ve never seen before.”

Later, after travelling through the fire-ravaged area from Norseman to Esperance, Mr Tasker said he was shocked by the devastation.

“I believe that from about 25 kilometres from the Norseman side of Scaddan ’til about two or three kilometres from the Esperance side it’s just total destruction, both sides of the roads, gone,” he said.

“A lot of wheat bins have collapsed with just the heat on their legs, they’ve fallen over. Where the fire has gone thorough it looks like Chernobyl.

“It’s heartbreaking. Where there should be luscious crop there’s just blackened ground and I know there will be a lot of sheep out there in a bit of grief, but we’ve got to make sure that everyone’s safety is paramount before they can go back in there.”

A bushfire emergency remains in place for Grass Patch and Salmon Gums, 100 kilometres north of Esperance and at Stockyard Creek and Mullet Lakes, 25 kilometres east of the town.

DFES said the bushfires were contained but not controlled and that firefighters were protecting homes and strengthening containment lines, assisted by aerial support.

‘The kids are crying’

Salmon Gums farmer and bushfire brigade volunteer Mic Fels and his family left their home yesterday as the fire approached.

“It’s just devastating. You know, the bizarre range of feelings that you have,” he told ABC News 24.

“We got our family out of the house when we realised that our property was in the line of the fire.

“The kids are crying. You’re chucking all the things in the car like you can think of, like favourite teddy bears and books – our accounts and photo albums, but it’s a pretty scary experience for the family.

“When you know the loss of other people you know, young middle-aged people with young children and families and involved in the community and now they’re gone, it’s pretty upsetting.”

Primary schools at Grass Patch, Scadden and Salmon Gums are closed today.

DFES Chief Superintendent Murray Bawden said weather conditions today were much more favourable than yesterday.

“We had some 111 incidents sparked by lightning yesterday so quite significant, but most importantly in the Great Southern Area around Esperance area, extreme weather conditions, with high winds, some of the wind gusts around 93 kilometres,” he said.

“The key thing for us is the fire’s now come out into an accessible area largely in the paddocks and across the pastoral lands.

ADVERTISEMENT

“We’re expecting much higher relative humidity and dew point today and much less wind speeds around 20 kilometre per hour, which should allow firefighters the opportunity to get around the head of the fire and then we can start mopping up over the next four or five days.”

‘Everyone has just rallied together’

Shire of Dundas Community Development Officer Pania Turner has been helping coordinate supplies and sleeping arrangements for the influx of people to Norseman from the fire-affected areas.

She said about 90 people were sleeping in the town hall and on the oval last night, along with their animals.

“We have had families, their animals, pets, their horses, coming in,” Ms Turner said.

“We’ve got a good crowd down at the local sports oval with all of their animals, and we have families and young children at the town hall.

“Everyone has just rallied together, as communities do.”

A spokeswoman for Horizon Power said about 300 people were without power in Esperance and Hopetoun.

“The electricity network has had to be disconnected in Esperance ahead of the fire line because fires are currently burning out of control, threatening homes and properties,” she said.

“Our crews will begin restoring power when the all clear can be given by DFES and that is not expected before tomorrow.

The fire, first reported Sunday morning, has burnt through 170,000 hectares so far.

Commissioner Gregson said severe, extreme and catastrophic fire conditions were expected across the state over the weekend.

ABC/AAP

This post originally appeared on ABC News

ABC-NEWS-LOGO-140x55© 2015 Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved. Read the ABC Disclaimer here

00:00 / ???