Yarloop town will ‘rise from ashes’

Daniel MercerCountryman
Ian Gray and Tracey Newman and dog Rain beside the creek they sheltered in under wet towels as the Yarloop fire passed over them and spared their house.
Camera IconIan Gray and Tracey Newman and dog Rain beside the creek they sheltered in under wet towels as the Yarloop fire passed over them and spared their house. Credit: The West Australian, Megan Powell.

All around Tracey Newman and Ian Gray’s hobby farm on the outskirts of Yarloop there are green shoots.

Whether it is the corn growing in the vegetable patch, or the grass sprouting up around the edges of their house, or the paperbark trees returning to vitality along the creek on the boundary of their property, everywhere there are healthy signs of life.

The scene is a world away from the one that confronted Ms Newman and Mr Gray a year ago, when the earth was scorched and Yarloop resembled a war zone.

Then, the couple were in a state of suspended belief as they tried to work out how they survived a fire that razed the South West town and left two of its inhabitants dead.

The events of that night on JUJanuary 7 are still seared into the minds of Ms Newman, 58, and Mr Gray, 63.

Talking about the first anniversary of the Yarloop blaze, they recalled how within a matter of moments calmness turned to anxiety before full-blown panic set in as the fire bore down.

It had all started so innocuously.

In Ms Newman's own words, that Thursday had been “just another day ... in our little town”.

“We sat down and had an evening meal about 6.30pm,” Mr Gray said.

“Though we could see the fire over on the escarpment because the helicopters had been going back and forth all day we thought it was probably under control.

“And because we were monitoring both the radio and the internet they kept talking about Harvey and Waroona but there was no mention of Yarloop.”

The first inkling the couple had of the danger they were in came as dusk set in and the fire swept down from the hills and into the paddocks nearby.

By the time Mr Gray had started to think about a possible escape, the inferno had engulfed the gum trees less than 100m from their home.

“The thing that was out of the ordinary was the strength of the wind,” he said.

“That easterly was there but the fire had obviously added to the strength of that wind, so it was like a double whammy.

“I would say it was easily 70km/h. ... What it was actually doing was ... pushing that fire with an intensity I could not have imagined.

“The gum trees over there — once one would catch alight the whole row of trees would just roar into flame in an instant.

“The wind was that strong, it was just pushing the fire like a blowtorch.”

For the former cabinetmaker, the next few minutes were a blur of white-knuckle terror as he and Ms Newman JUdesperately tried to survive.

Although he initially reasoned that standing in the middle of a paddock would be the best bet for safety, with no water or safety equipment it quickly became apparent the idea was suicide. In a split-second decision that saved their lives, they bolted for the creek at the edge of their property, taking their dog Rain with them along with towels Ms Newman had thought to wet beforehand.

There they huddled in barely a foot of muddy water, under the towels and with their terrified dog for what Ms Newman said seemed like 10 minutes but was actually four hours.

“I said to Tracey ‘if we are in an open area it’s our best chance, we’re not near any flammable objects’,” he said.

“And we were standing there and that’s when the fire became really intense and really close and “Tracey said ‘this is it, we’ve got to go’ and we just ran down to the creek,” Mr Gray said.

“As we jumped in the creek, the fire went over the top of us.”

They laugh about it now, but Ms Newman recalls with some horror how she thought she would be eaten alive by the flames when she got her trousers caught in the barbed wire fence lining the creek embankment. And Mr Gray said the sounds ofJU Yarloop burning will haunt him for the rest of his life.

The worst, he said, was the “twisting, groaning and tortured” sound of the town’s steam workshops being destroyed in the intensity of the fire’s heat.

By some miracle their house — apart from a water tank and a shed — survived, while they walked away with their lives.

Even their beloved sheep and alpacas escaped unscathed.

But what they can’t accept is what they say was the heavy handed and at times insensitive response to the predicament they and other survivors faced from authorities after the fire.

Too often, they said, their efforts to go outside the town’s roadblocks for supplies or help were given short shrift by officials.

What’s more, they still regard as a failure the lack of any direct JUreference to Yarloop in the alerts and warnings issued about the fire that day.

Nevertheless, the couple say they love the former timber town and plan to stay for the long haul.

Amid the renewal taking place all around them, which includes scores of levelled houses being rebuilt, Ms Newman bought personalised number plates to channel the sentiment.

They read “FENIX 7116” in JUJUreference to the mythical bird and the date of the Yarloop fire.

The message is simple — Yarloop will rise from the ashes.

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