Esperance bushfire coronial inquest findings call for career fire station, mitigation and resources funding

The memorials of Kym 'Freddy' Curnow, Thomas Butcher, Anna Sushchova-Winther and Julia Kohrs-Lichte in Scaddan. Photo: Jesinta Burton.
The memorials of Kym 'Freddy' Curnow, Thomas Butcher, Anna Sushchova-Winther and Julia Kohrs-Lichte in Scaddan. Photo: Jesinta Burton.

A coronial inquest into the catastrophic 2015 Esperance bushfires has called on the state government to drastically increase funds to better resource and support local firefighters.

Coroner Sarah Linton released 12 recommendations on December 3, following a five-day inquest into the deaths of Kym 'Freddy' Curnow, Thomas Butcher, Anna Sushchova-Winther and Julia Kohrs-Lichte.

The monster blaze caused by a lightning strike to Unallocated Crown Land left a trail of devastation as it burned through more than 300,000 hectares in 11 days.

Coroner Linton called for the Department of Fire and Emergency Services to immediately create and fill three new positions in Esperance to support the region's area officer.

Ms Linton also called for the establishment of a Career Fire and Rescue Service Station for Esperance-Ravensthorpe, which would bring an additional 20 firefighters to the region.

This government is instead putting unprecedented investment into bushfire mitigation as well as providing financial support for local governments to identify and treat their own bushfire risks.

Emergency Services Minister Francis Logan.

However, Emergency Services Minister Francis Logan ruled out this recommendation.

"It is important to state now that a career fire station is not a consideration," he said.

"This government is instead putting unprecedented investment into bushfire mitigation as well as providing financial support for local governments to identify and treat their own bushfire risks."

Mr Logan said progress had been made by boosting DFES management support in the region, basing the Shire's community emergency services manager in Esperance and preparing aircraft and support personnel ahead of bad fire weather.

The Nationals WA spokesperson for Emergency Services Colin de Grussa said early conversations with Esperance volunteer firefighters indicated they were also hesitant to establish a career fire service.

"I share their concerns, and will continue to discuss the recommendations in detail with those on the ground," he said.

Cascade Scaddan Fire Review director Dan Sanderson agreed that a career fire service would not be an efficient use of funds and since 2015 DFES had improved support for local firefighters.

Mr Sanderson said he was grateful for the inquest findings and changes needed to be made statewide.

"I think you are better off having a good system that supports the people that are based here, I don't think there is a need to have more permanent DFES staff in Esperance," he said.

Ms Linton called for DFES to consider updating the region's official bushfire season to reflect the reality of climate change.

"I am satisfied from the evidence before me that the climate is changing and the timing, number, duration and severity of fires in this country is increasing, in part as a result of climate change," Ms Linton said.

She recommended DFES adopt a new policy to communicate between departments and services on the ground, and for the state government to prioritise drafting a Consolidated Emergency Services Act.

Ms Linton called for two light tanker appliances and the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions to fund heavy earth moving equipment for fire mitigation works and use in an emergency.

The recurring theme, is that the lack of any long-term, appropriate funding for fire mitigation in the Esperance region has created a major bushfire risk by allowing fuel loads to increase dramatically and firebreak maintenance to fall behind.

Coroner Sarah Linton.

The state government was called to secure funds for a 10-year fire mitigation strategy led by the South-East Fire Working Group to create firebreaks and strategic exits in areas of Unallocated Crown Land.

"The recurring theme, is that the lack of any long-term, appropriate funding for fire mitigation in the Esperance region has created a major bushfire risk by allowing fuel loads to increase dramatically and firebreak maintenance to fall behind," Ms Linton said.

"In order to rectify the problem, there needs to be security of funding at a level that allow for a long-term, meaningful fire mitigation strategy to be created and put into effect."

Ms Linton called for the assessment of airstrips available in Esperance that could be upgraded to permit the operation of water bombers.

She noted the shire had updated its emergency policies since the fires to ensure aerial support was deployed from Albany in preparation for an emergency.

The coroner also called on the government to give priority funding of about $800,000 to a Wheatbelt based aerial fire suppression response team for the entirety of the season to service Esperance.

Mr Sanderson said red tape prevented locals from providing a supplementary aerial response when no water bombers were available in the 2015 fires.

"Aircrafts aren't always going to make a difference with the fire, but the times it can make a difference, get the local contractor up and get him there responding straight away," he said.

"He just wants to be able to do a community service and respond."

Member for Roe Peter Rundle said there should be a focus on aerial fire suppression and said it was important to assist locals to gain training to provide aerial support across Esperance.

"I think that local aerial support would be a really high priority and I will be talking to the minister about that," he said.

"I think that should be a real focus especially with our terrain and number of national parks and Unallocated Crown Land."

Need for stronger communication during an emergency was examined, with Ms Linton calling for the state to install a new repeater tower in Esperance's north-west.

Mr Rundle said this needed to be supported with better access to backup batteries and emergency power supplies.

Ms Linton said she hoped the inquest was an opportunity to heal and acknowledged the bravery of all involved.

"It must have been terrifying to behold. Experienced firefighters said that they had never before seen anything like it, in terms of its speed and ferocity," she said.

"It was an unprecedented, and hopefully rare, event.

"I hope their work is not in vain and the state government gives due regard to what the people who actually fight these fires say they need to save lives in the future when the next bushfire inevitably rages in Esperance."