Coronial Inquest hears emotional testimony from Cascade firefighter

Will Carmody at the Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades' 2017 awards. He was awarded for his exceptional leadership of the Cascades brigade. Photo: Australian Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade Association.

Will Carmody at the Association of Volunteer Bush Fire Brigades' 2017 awards. He was awarded for his exceptional leadership of the Cascades brigade. Photo: Australian Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade Association.

There were emotional scenes in Esperance Courthouse on the second day of a coronial inquest as a volunteer firefighter who stepped up to take charge of a deadly bushfire recounted how his repeated calls for help went unanswered.

Local farmer and experienced firefighter Will Carmody appeared as a witness in the Esperance courthouse as a part of an inquest into the deaths of Kym Curnow, Thomas Butcher, Anna Winther and Julia Kohrs-Lichte in the Cascades blaze in November 2015.

Giving almost five hours of evidence, Mr Carmody told the inquest that despite a strong relationship between local firefighters and the Department of Fire and Emergency Services over time, the management of the Cascades fire had left him frustrated as he tried to co-ordinate a response to the fire over a four-day period.

Mr Carmody told the inquest was first made aware of the fire when one of his workers reported smelling smoke in remote bushland near the Lake Mends area in the early hours of November 15.

An experienced pilot, Mr Carmody said he began monitoring the fire in his Cessna plane as it began to burn through the complex system of salt lakes throughout the Cascades area.

He took photos and observed as the blaze experienced flare-ups due to strong winds and low humidity, and when it died down overnight thanks to cooler temperatures and lighter winds.

While monitoring the blaze Mr Carmody often checked in with a DFES officer who he worked closely with, and developed a three-pronged firefighting approach.

They would attempt to attack the fire, conduct backburning and build containment lines with bulldozers in order to prevent it from jumping into nearby bushland.

At the time of the blaze another fire was burning in Merivale, much closer to homes and properties.

Firefighting efforts were concentrated on the area while Mr Carmody began the task of rallying local farmers and volunteer firefighters to help and provide their own equipment.

Firefighters on the ground in 2015.

Firefighters on the ground in 2015.

Mr Carmody co-ordinated teams to begin the task of clearing and creating containment lines in the Lake Mends area on November 16, and to track the progress of the fire.

But due to the rough terrain some machinery became bogged and, in one case, broke down.

It took hours for bulldozers to reach the outskirts of the fire, at which point firefighters had lost valuable time.

Throughout the day, Mr Carmody was in talks with emergency services about sourcing aerial support or other resources he believed could help volunteers in their efforts - but he was told resources were tied up fighting about 40 other bushfires throughout the state, including in Merivale.

Mr Carmody said he was wary of not having enough resources when the Bureau of Meteorology had already forecasted potentially catastrophic fire conditions for the following day.

But on the morning of November 17, Mr Carmody said he remained hopeful as the conditions didn't seem to be as predicted.

"It was a nice day," he said. "I wondered what was going on.

"There was something eerie about it. I thought, 'there's something funny going on here, I'm missing something'."

Then, about 10.30am, the predicted winds came through.

Despite harried efforts by firefighters, the fire jumped containment lines on Neds Corner Road and began its march towards people's homes and properties in Scaddan.

Mr Carmody said what happened next was something he had never seen before.

"The activity had gone ballistic," he said. "The flames were blasting the bush, it was starting to become like a blow torch. We needed to fall back into a safe point."

Mr Carmody told the inquest of the nervousness he felt as the fire intensified, sending up "fire hurricanes" and flames as high as 40 metres.

As the commanding fire control officer, Mr Carmody had also previously sent his brother Paul in to track the fire - and he had yet to come out.

He was unable to reach his teams, including his brother, due to poor reception and their satellite radio appeared to be broken.

Not only were his crews in danger, but they were now unable to help fight the fire.

Mr Carmody said this was when his focus switched from trying to attack the fire to protecting the lives of the community.

"I had seen fires that were similar but nothing like this," he said. "This was just so much more. In previous fires we had some chance of fighting it but this ... we had no chance."

He contacted those he could and told them to evacuate immediately, while still speaking to his contact at DFES about the support and resources he needed to help people flee the blaze and protect their properties.

Mr Carmody told the inquest at that point he wasn't aware control of the fire had been transferred over to DFES, and he was still trying to do everything to save and protect his community.

It was in this time Kym Curnow turned out to Mr Carmody's control point and asked how he could help.

"It's a vague recollection," Mr Carmody said. "It would have been along the lines of 'it's going into your territory. Make sure it's clear, make sure it's safe'."

Mr Curnow acted on instruction, and took off towards the area where his own property was located.

"I'm in fear, I'm in fear for my family, my community, my friends," Mr Carmody told the court.

About 8pm at night Mr Carmody was pulled aside by a friend to let him know Mr Curnow had been found dead in a car on Grigg Road. Hours later a DFES officer came out to meet Mr Carmody for the first time.

Mr Carmody, who had now been working from early in the morning on November 17 through to about 11pm, said it was at that point he was told DFES would be providing extra resources in the morning - including an updated map and aerial support.

However, the promised resources did not come and no one came to relieve him from his post the following day.

"It was clear everyone was stretched ... but we certainly felt a bit alone," he said.

He later found out about the deaths of Tom Butcher, Anna Winther and Julia Kohrs-Lichte through social media, and said emergency services had not notified him of the three deaths.

Despite the problems that came with the fire, Mr Carmody said it was clear operational structures had changed since 2015 and he still felt confident working with DFES.

Mr Carmody said the suggestion waterbombers could have reduced the fire in the early stages and possibly given firefighters on the ground more time was apt, but there would always be an extreme likelihood the fire would break containment lines regardless.

He said it still would have been helpful to give firefighters on the ground more time to act.

People have been injured, people have been rescued from tractors, my nephew was on the truck when he became engulfed in smoke ... he couldn't see the back of the bonnet.

Will Carmody

Mr Carmody said there were still improvements to be made in regional communication during bushfire events, and mitigation techniques in remote bushland such as "chaining" - razing vegetation to a low height so fires wouldn't burn as quickly - and said the subjectivity of "fire levels" meant the fire was classified as a level two event for too long.

"It should have been a level two from Sunday night," he said.

Only when a fire reaches a level three alert can DFES supply its waterbombers.

As he finished giving more than five hours of evidence, Mr Carmody said he was "deeply saddened" by the incident.

"I'm saddened we've had four deaths. It affects me," he said.

"But I'm also grateful we're not here for another 40. I've had 40 other people who have described to me how close they came, and it's only been seconds.

"People have been injured, people have been rescued from tractors, my nephew was on the truck when he became engulfed in smoke ... he couldn't see the back of the bonnet.

"I'm grateful that there's not another 40 people. I'd like to express my gratitude for the courage and bravery of all the firefighters that day. It was just astounding."

When Mr Carmody finished giving his evidence, people formed a line to shake his hand, some embraced him, and others cried as he hugged them, while Coroner Sarah Linton thanked him for his time and bravery.

The inquest will continue until Friday.