Esperance Shire chief says community is "desperate" for mitigation

David Vandenberghe in front of a shearing shed on one of his lease properties that was destroyed in the November 2015 bushfires. Photo: Supplied.
David Vandenberghe in front of a shearing shed on one of his lease properties that was destroyed in the November 2015 bushfires. Photo: Supplied.

A farmer and volunteer firefighter who discovered his friend, Kym 'Freddy' Curnow's body has called for more power to be given to local brigades.

David Vandenberghe gave evidence on day three of the coronial inquest into the four fatalities from the Cascade Scaddan 2015 bushfires.

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Mr Vandenberghe told Coroner Sarah Linton that when the fire leaped from Unallocated Crown Land onto farmland on November 17, 2015 it was uncontrollable.

"It was tornado after tornado of fireballs," he said.

After calling various people in the evening who were unable to tell him where Mr Curnow was, Mr Vandenberghe began searching.

He eventually came back on to Grigg Road, where he found Mr Curnow's car about 7:30pm.

Smoke was heavy and the light was fading, with Mr Vandenberghe only able to rely on his phone to see the car. When other vehicles arrived with their lights on, he saw Mr Curnow in the back seat. 

The firefighter said he spent two-and-a-half hours calling 000 and eventually phoned his local member who contacted the Minister for Police. 

In the meantime, firefighters had to guard Mr Curnow's car and the bodies of the three backpackers, which had been discovered nearby.

Mr Vandenberghe said police arrived about 11:00pm. 

Worried that Mr Curnow's children would find out on Facebook their father had died, he called them and other family members to let them know.

"The kids have spoken to me later and said I'm glad it was you," Mr Vandenberghe said during his evidence. 

Kym 'Freddy' Curnow is remembered as a hero who would put the safety of others before his own. Photo: Supplied.

Kym 'Freddy' Curnow is remembered as a hero who would put the safety of others before his own. Photo: Supplied.

After being up since about 5am, he was able to leave the scene past midnight exhausted and "emotionally drained".

Mr Vandenberghe also expressed frustration at the delay in road blocks being established.

"The fact that the highway never got closed off until after the event was a tragedy waiting to happen," he said.

"To close highways and roads, it's too slow. There are too many forms and boxes.

"The power should be given to brigades [to close roads]. If we close it and get it wrong, what's the harm? A couple of grumpy truckies."

Mr Vandenberghe said road closures would also improve safety for firefighters who would not have to worry about cars driving through smoke while they were working. 

He told the court he had wondered for more than three years why his friend made the fatal decision to drive on Grigg Road on that afternoon. 

However, knowing Mr Curnow was a person who would put his life in danger to help others, Mr Vandenberghe believes he was driving to warn the three backpackers who also died in the blaze.

Shire chief testifies

Esperance Shire chief executive officer Matthew Scott held back tears as he offered his condolences to the families who had lost loved ones, some of whom had travelled from overseas to be at the inquest.

"Your loss is our loss," he said.

"Your family members were part of our community, therefore you're part of our community."

Mr Scott said DFES, the Department of Parks and Wildlife and the shire had had a good relationship when it came to fighting fires.

However, he stressed the need for local management of fire responses.

"We have multi-generational families who have lived here for 50-plus years. They know the land," Mr Scott said.

"It needs to be locally managed."

Mr Scott said by November 16 the shire was actively engaged in warning residents. He said firefighters believed their strategies would reduce the spread of the fire, but they were aware of the extreme weather predicted the next day. 

About 11am on November 17, Mr Scott attended a DFES-run briefing. Normal shire services had essentially stopped as all focus was on the fire.

"I was made aware the forecast was worse than expected," he said. 

While DFES had already been working with the shire to combat the fire, it was at this briefing Mr Scott formally requested the department takeover.

In the following hours, the fire escalated dramatically and shire staff began searching through databases to call those who might be in danger. 

At another briefing at 6pm, Mr Scott was advised there had been a fatality. He said it took more than a year to recover from the immediate impacts of the fire. 

"This was the worst event in the community."

A coronial inquest is being held into the deaths of Kym Brett Curnow, Thomas Leslie Butcher, Anna Sashohova Winther and Julia Kohrs-Lichte. Photo: Supplied.

A coronial inquest is being held into the deaths of Kym Brett Curnow, Thomas Leslie Butcher, Anna Sashohova Winther and Julia Kohrs-Lichte. Photo: Supplied.

Mr Scott said lessons were learnt from November 2015. He outlined improvements in areas such as communications, volunteer firefighter training, procedural clarity and fire break maintenance.

The chief executive said something needed to be done regarding the management of Unallocated Crown Land.

"The community can be extremely impacted by what starts in Unallocated Crown Land," he said.

"I would hope the state government looks not just at Esperance, but all rural communities."

The coroner pointed out that management of this land would save the state money in the longterm as it would lessen the recovery costs from bushfires. 

Mr Scott agreed with Coroner Linton.

"Our community is desperate for mitigation. If we can stop fires at their start... it saves everything," Mr Scott said. 

Outcome 'still going to be the same'

Former DFES district area officer Gavin Warnes also testified on the third day of the inquest about his involvement with the response to the fires and his reflections since then.

Mr Warnes said he spent three years reviewing what had occurred.

"There are many little things that I could've changed, but the outcome was still going to be the same," he said.

Mr Warnes said each local government was a separate fire agency and said this needed to be addressed.

"We need to bite the bullet," he said.

"[We should] step in and be one agency."

Mr Warnes became choked up as he addressed the families of those who died.

"My sincere condolences to the loved ones and families of those four fatalities on that day," he said.

Mr Warnes also thanked the volunteer firefighters. 

Leader during disaster

Esperance Shire president Victoria Brown told the Esperance Express that in 2015 she had expected stories to emerge from the fires, but was amazed at the extent of the bravery of volunteers who put their lives at risk to defend their communities.

Mrs Brown had been sworn in as shire president for less than a month when the fires began. 

"Things started to happen very quickly. I had a great Shire deputy president in Natalie Bowman. Both of us were rural councillors so we understood immediately the huge area we were dealing with. When you're faced with something like that, you just step up and get on with it."

The November 2015 bushfires were seemingly unstoppable at their peak. Photo: DFES.

The November 2015 bushfires were seemingly unstoppable at their peak. Photo: DFES.

Mrs Brown said she hoped the inquest would give everyone, particularly families of the deceased, a better understanding of what occurred.

"I've learnt a huge amount of things that I didn't know were happening because everybody was involved in their own pocket of responsibility, whether they were fighting the fire, or they were with the shire or in the incident control centre," she said.

"This inquest has given us the opportunity to listen to find out what everybody was doing in their individual roles through that period."

Mrs Brown said at the outset of the inquest she was worried families and volunteers may have felt they were being apportioned blame, but said as the inquest had progressed it had highlighted the strong working relationship between firefighting agencies.

"I want to come out of this inquest learning what happened, learning what has been put in place since then... and waiting to hear what the coroner is going to deliver in terms of recommendations to ensure that the relationship stays the same and, if anything, is strengthened," she said.