Cascade Scaddan bushfire coronial inquest begins

Warning delay explored on first day of inquest

A coronial inquest into the lives lost in the November 2015 Cascade Scaddan bushfires was told an Emergency Warning and an upgrade to a Level 3 fire incident only occurred hours after the four fatalities. 

The five-day inquest is being held in Esperance Courthouse before Coroner Sarah Linton.

It will examine the deaths of Scaddan farmer Kym 'Freddy' Curnow and backpackers Thomas Butcher, Anna Winther and Julia Kohrs-Lichte who were killed on Grigg Road about 4.30pm on November 17, 2015.​

Lightning had sparked an out of control fire in Unallocated Crown Land two days earlier.

The inquest is investigating the circumstances of the bushfire and whether anything could have been done to prevent its 70km run through bushland and farmland over an 11-day period.

Counsel assisting the coroner Sergeant Lyle Housiaux told a packed court in his opening address that the inquest would also focus on whether more could have been done to protect people, by containing and managing the fire earlier as unusual catastrophic weather conditions were forecasted and because it was known the fire storm was approaching at high speed and intensity.

Sgt Housiaux said in his opening a Watch and Act had been given at 1:10pm on November 17, but an Emergency Warning was not issued until 5:50pm, about two hours after the fire front impacted Grigg Road.

The bushfire was also only upgraded to a Level 3 after the four people were engulfed in flames.

"Ninety minutes after the fire front had traversed the [Coolgardie-Esperance] highway and impacted the Scaddan Township, the fire was upgraded to a Level 3 incident," he said. 

Following Sgt Housiaux's opening address, Detective Sergeant Kevin Wiseby spoke about his investigation as part of the Arson Squad.

Sgt Wiseby determined there was "no criminality" involved.

Department of Parks and Wildlife conservation and science officer Dr Neil Burrows (retired) spoke about how fire fighters had been expanding fire breaks in response to the fires, but had been unable to complete their work before conditions became "catastrophic" on the 17th

Mark Trowel, who is representing the Shire of Esperance, pressed Dr Burrows on the fact that burn-offs had not been done in the Lake Mends area in more than 50 years.

Dr Burrows said controlled burning in the remote area would be "difficult and risky".

"So is a fire that starts with a substantial fuel load," Mr Trowel responded.

Dr Burrows said chaining vegetation and burning a 200 metre break would be an effective risk management strategy, but said access to funding was an issue.

Mr Trowel suggested it would have be cheaper than dealing with the aftermath of a "major fire". 

"If the state government is serious about fire prevention then it will allocate those resources," Mr Trowel said.

Mr Trowel also questioned DFES district officer Andrew Duckworth on the decision to upgrade the threat level after the four deaths.

He asked Mr Duckworth if miscommunication meant management teams weren't aware of the scale of the blaze at the time of the tragedy.

Mr Duckworth said he had not experienced miscommunication at that point, but gave his own characterisation of the fire.

"I have to say it was beyond anything I've ever experienced in terms of bushfires I've investigated, absolutely," he said.

"It was crazy. I think all the crews that attempted to fight the fire that day were extremely brave and they definitely put their lives on the line."

WA Emergency Services Minister Fran Logan said his thoughts were with all those reliving the trauma.

"I've been to Scaddan on many occasions and you can see that the scars from those terrible fires still remain not just in the countryside, but also among the locals," he said.

"To lose one of their own, who was trying to help others, and three guest workers, took a big toll. The recovery is still continuing.

"As the Scaddan volunteers have told me, the fires over that period were like nothing they had experienced before and demonstrate how unstoppable a catastrophic bushfire can be.

Minister Logan said the series of complex and serious fires in Esperance earlier in the year were managed exceptionally well by volunteer firefighters, the Shire of Esperance, DFES and other agencies.

"These recent fires showed the high level of cooperation and support that exists in our regions when it comes to fighting fires," he said. 

"I hope that this inquest will give some solace and answers to those who are still searching for a resolution.

"The government will also closely examine the coroner's findings on what learnings may come from the inquest."

The inquest continues.