Esperance fires: Partner pays tribute to British man killed in Esperance fires

Staff reportersKalgoorlie Miner
Anna Winther, died trying to escape the Scaddan fire.
Camera IconAnna Winther, died trying to escape the Scaddan fire. Credit: Kalgoorlie Miner

The partner of a British man killed in the Esperance fires yesterday has told of her heartbreak at losing her “soulmate.”

Mechanic Tom Butcher, 31, died alongside Norwegian woman Anna Winther and a German woman, Julia Kohrs-Lichte, as they tried to save a horse as well as themselves.

Leila Vadnjal posted a tribute on Facebook today, recalling the memories, love and laughter the couple shared.

“I will remember and cherish our last kiss and touch and the way you would tell me "in a bit" as your way of saying bye,” she wrote.

“My love for you will stay strong for my life.”

Meanwhile, fire victim Kym “Freddy” Curnow has been remembered as a loving husband, adored father and an “irreplaceable mate.”

Mr Curnow’s close friend Glen Quinlivan today spoke on behalf of his grief stricken family, describing him as a wonderful man and a real character.

"I don't know anyone who would say a bad word about Freddy, it's as simple as that."

A member of the Scaddan Volunteer Bush Fire Brigade, Mr Curnow had been driving around in his utility and on his two-way radio, warning friends and neighbours to flee, when he was overcome by the flames.

According to a neighbour, he had turned to chase down a vehicle heading into danger when he was caught by the fire.

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"It's not about heroics... he just did what he had to do," Mr Quinlivan said.

"It was his job, he was part of the brigade and he was warning people to get out and he didn't."

Mr Curnow is survived by wife Rosanne and their children Tom, Riley and Emma.

"His wider community involvements and sporting achievements, along with his farming practices, had him a leader in his field and a person to be admired," Mr Quinlivan said.

Ms Winther, 29, has been identified as one of the overseas workers killed in the devastating fires.

She had been in Australia for about four years and was working as a cook on a Scaddan property. Ms Kohrs-Lichte, 19, had been working at the farm for a matter of days.

The trio's bodies were found in a burned out vehicle that was towing a float when it rolled over. The three died trying to save a horse as well as themselves.

48 hours to build fire defences

Esperance Sen. Sgt Richard Moore told a community meeting today an investigation had started into the four deaths.

He said forensic officers had been out at Griggs Road, where the four were found in two vehicles, since last night and would likely be there until at least Sunday.

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"It's an enormous investigation, we want to get it right the first time - especially for the families," he said.

Esperance Shire president Victoria Brown said she could understand frustration about the time it was taking for phone lines to be restored and for people to be allowed into fire zones but authorities wanted to make sure there were no more fatalities.

Linda Campbell paid tribute to three victims who worked on her farm and described the tragic circumstances surrounding their deaths.

“She was our cook and working her 88 days for her second-year visa. She was a very intelligent, lovely girl and I enjoyed our conversations greatly,” she said.

“(Anna) had a masters in human rights and I think she was 29 years old,” Mrs Campbell said.

Tom, the mechanic, was trying to gain permanent residency and he had worked for Mrs Campbell and her husband David since last November.

“He was fighting the fires with my husband when Dave made the call that our house was in direct danger and he had to get back,” she said.

“He (the mechanic) then made the decision that he would take the horse and go.

“The two girls were set up to stay in the accommodation with a pool between them and the front but took up his offer to go.

“If they had turned right at the gate and not left they wouldn’t have died."

Mrs Campbell said they only got a few kilometres from the house before being overwhelmed.

“They had become part of the team and all the staff are taking this very hard,” she said."

Mrs Campbell also revealed a fellow Scaddan farmer visited her property to raise the alarm as the fire closed in.

Mr Curnow, who lost his life trying to save others, also spoke to her by two-way radio.

The Campbells saved their house through "the fantastic work of the guys working here".

"I cant thank them enough," Mrs Campbell said.

" We lost the shearing shed, geese, cat, guinea fowl, vegie garden, fruit trees and bits of gear that we haven't counted yet."

The Campbells were also among the farmers who lost nearly all of their wheat crop.

Mr Curnow’s body was found in a burned out vehicle on the same road just a few kilometres away.

Mrs Campbell said Mr Curnow contacted her by radio to warn the fire was 10km away and to ask if she had prepared.

“He also called in with his son and spoke to my son prior to the front hitting,” she said.

“I have been here 30 years and have never seen anything like this.”

The tight-knit farming communities around Esperance are in shock over Mr Curnow's loss.

He was a leading figure in the district where he touched the lives of many.

Former teammates at the Gibson Football Club, where Mr Curnow was a life member, led the tributes.

They described him as a legend and said he was universally loved throughout the community.

“The club was built around him and played around him for more than 20 years,” one said.

“We don’t want to talk about it because we don’t want to believe it is true.”

Mr Curnow was part of a long-standing family at Scaddan and had two brothers farming nearby.

His body was found by farming neighbours who were also involved in the desperate battle to save lives and property.

The fires are continuing to burn today, with an emergency bushfire warning for the small town of Grass Patch being reinstated early this afternoon.

The fire broke contaiment lines but has now been contained and the threat level has been reduced to a watch and act.

Late yesterday 200 firefighters were working to build containment lines.

Catastrophic and unstoppable

Department of Fire and Emergency Services Commissioner Wayne Gregson Gregson said yesterday the Esperance fire conditions were "catastrophic and unstoppable".

At a community meeting in Esperance this morning, Shire President Victoria Brown said the conditions created “the day from hell” and the town was shellshocked.

More bad weather is expected on Saturday, Sunday and Monday.

Gibson Hotel owner Dianne Waddington said that in more than two decades years in the area, the fire situation was the worst she had ever seen.

“The smoke yesterday was absolutely horrific and the wind factor, I can’t say I’ve ever seen the wind as bad as it was yesterday, between the smoke and the dust it was just horrific,” she said.

“All day long we’ve had people coming in for water, drinks of water and we’ve had a couple of people come in whose farms have gone, looking very devastated.”

“I’ve been here 21 and a half years and I’ve never seen anything like this.”

She said farmers, particularly in the Scaddan area, were concerned about the safety of their workers and had tried to evacuate them first.

“A lot of farmers in the area have overseas workers on their farms at the moment and the first priority for them was to get them off their farms because they don’t understand how fires work in Australia, a lot of them are from Germany and wider Europe.

“They told their workers to get to town and stay there until things clear up,” she said.

Mrs Waddington said the deaths were sure to devastate the small community and had put any property damage sustained in the fires into perspective.

“The death of anyone is always straight away on people’s thoughts, they think about the bigger picture.

“They think ‘we may have lost our farm but someone has lost their life and that’s so much more important than anything else, they’re not coming home tonight’,” she said.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said the Federal Government was ready to provide assistance to WA.

He offered his condolences to the families of the people killed.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of those who've lost their loved ones. This is a very tragic event," Mr Turnbull said in Manila, where the PM is attending the APEC leaders meeting.

Water bombers could not be used yesterday but will fly today.

Smoke from the fires can be seen from Esperance where Castletown BP manager Kerri Greig said residents were on edge.

“I could see the smoke on my way to work and I didn’t know the full extent of it until this morning,” she said.

“The fire at Merivale is sending smoke to the townsite. Everybody’s in shock, this is huge. I just feel so much for those that have lost everything.”

'It was just a firestorm

DFES Goldfields Esperance superintendent Trevor Tasker said that while driving from Grass Patch to Salmon Gums last night all he saw was a firestorm.

"I got to a roadblock and there was two volunteer bushfire brigade firefighters that were farmers and the look of fear on their face of the fire coming over the hill meant the decision was made pretty quickly to get people back to Salmon Gums," Supt Tasker said.

"When we got to Grass Patch the oval was parked up with a lot of grey nomads in their campervans.

"With the smoke coming over the hill you could see the fear in their faces."

Mr Tasker said a risk assessment was made to open a road to get a convoy of up to 130 vechicles to evacuate people.

"The roar of the fire is something a lot of people would never have experienced," he said.

"It just bears down on you and it is there in minutes.

"Some of these farmers have been battling for years and they've had the best crops they ever had which made it more conducive to lightning strikes.

"Some want to guard their crops so they didn't want to leave and may have made a decision a little bit late, nobody will ever know."

People in Scaddan and Grass Patch were evacuated to Salmon Gums Primary School last night but Salmon Gums was evacuated this morning, with residents moved to Esperance.

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