Families lose 'everything' in Esperance fires

STAFF REPORTERS with AAPThe West Australian
Guy Green.
Camera IconGuy Green. Credit: Facebook

UPDATE: Messages of support are flowing through in their hundreds for families affected by the fires in Esperance.

Four people have been killed and at least 300 evacuated in “catastrophic and unstoppable” bushfires raging out of control near Esperance on WA’s South Coast and there are fears the death toll could rise.

More than 120 people have sought safety and information at the emergency evacuation centre set up by the Department for Child Protection and Family Support at the Esperance Civic Centre.

FOLLOW ROLLING COVERAGE OF THE FIRES

Fears six people have died

Snapshot of the bushfires

The department's director-general, Emma White, said people who had nowhere safe to stay or had been impacted by the bushfire were being provided with food, care and accommodation.

Ms White said the department was helping people find personal support - such as counselling and psychological services - and referrals to other organisations that could help in their recovery.

"Our thoughts are with the families and friends whose loved ones have tragically lost their lives in this devastating fire," Ms White said.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took to social media to express his sympathy for those affected by the fires.

"Lucy and I join all Australians in expressing our love and solidarity for the families who lost loved ones in the terrible fires at Esperance," Mr Turnbull said.

Esperance resident Guy Green and his family are among those who have lost everything in the flames.

Mr Green took to Facebook to express the horror of losing “everything my grandpa and dad worked hard for”.

“I don’t know what to say,” he wrote.

“Today my family lost all our farms, houses, farm machinery and — probably the hardest to take in — our memories.

“The place I grew up, made me the person I am today and was to be my future is completely gone.

“Everything my grandpa and dad worked hard for. To everyone who has been affected by the fires today, you’re definitely on the top of my mind. Be safe. WE ARE ONE (sic).”

St John’s Ambulance volunteer Kay Maganotti lives on a farm 25km from Salmon Gums and said she and her family left her property last night.

“At 5.30/6-o’clock we realised things were serious and we did a quick run around the house and chucked a heap of stuff in the car and drove to Salmon Gums,” she said.

“We went to an evacuation centre at school and everyone was saying the smoke was getting really thick there and we need to evacuate to Norseman.”

Mrs Maganotti said she and her husband Michael had never experienced anything like this before.

"I'm from England and I married Michael and he is born and bred here and he has never been evacuated in his life," she said.

Mrs Maganotti said she and her family were "knackered" and praised the staff at the evacuation centre in Norseman.

""They took us down to the footy oval and then briefed us and they had food and beds all made up," she said.

"There has been loss of life so in the whole scheme of things this has been a minor inconvenience for us.

"We know our property is okay at this stage, we don't know what the weather is going to bring today or tomorrow."

Mrs Maganotti said her two children understood what was going on and were upset at being evacuated.

She said she explained their home would probably not be burned down but they needed to leave to be safe.

The Shire of Esperance posted on Facebook to thank people for their support during this difficult time.

"There has been an outpouring of offers to help in every way possible, which is a testament to the kind of community in which we live," the Shire wrote.

"Thank you to everyone for your offers of donations, time, assistance, supplies and accommodation during the bushfires.

"Your offers are being recorded and as soon as we know what is needed and where we will let you know.

"Please understand we have limited resources and it is impossible to reply to each individual offer but that doesn't mean we don't truly appreciate it."

Spare beds, food and clothes are being offered to people who have fled the deadly bushfires.

Jeff Sparrowhawk has lived in Esperance for 21 years and was one of the first people to offer spare bedrooms at his family home for those in need.

“I know some of these people affected and they’ve always been good to me,” he said.

“We would do it for anybody.”

Mr Sparrowhawk, a married father of three, said he also had spare furniture available, including beds.

He said community spirit was important during times of devastation.

Other residents in the Esperance area have offered couches to sleep on, showers to freshen up in and a paddock for animals.

Our Lady Star of The Sea Primary School is accepting students from Scaddan Primary School and has so far taken in five children on top of its 160 pupils.

The Australian Red Cross has opened a register for people affected by the fires to help them get in touch with family and friends.

A spokesman said anyone unable to contact family should visit the Red Cross website and search the Register.Find.Unite register.

As the fires broke out yesterday, Bianca Webb said on social media as she was about to head home that she was "freaking out about these bloody fires".

She had to run from her property with seven dogs and a cat as fires closed in.

Just after 1am she said on Facebook: "Good to know my house is no longer in the red zone (evacuation zone). Just hope they control it and I'll be able to sleep tonight. Never been so stressed in my life."

Ms Webb responded to Mr Green's post: :I can't say I know what you feel but I was evacuated from home. Most scariest thing to happen to me. Hope everyone is ok (sic)."

Ms Webb, who works at CBH Group, thanked people for their help and support during the fires.

"Thank you everyone who was by my side when I had to run with seven dogs and a cat," she said.

Ms Webb said that a forecast wind change was worrying locals.

Backburning was being done in paddocks in a bid to prevent the fire from spreading to blue gum trees, she said.

WA Farmers chief executive Stephen Brown said the lightning-sparked fires had come at the end of one of the best-ever seasons in the area as farmers were harvesting grain.

"To see your crop going up in smoke after what was going to be a bumper season is heartbreaking," he said.

Mr Brown said he expected most of the loss to crops and livestock would be insured, but the death of locals in small towns would have a significant impact on the communities.

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.

"We do have experience in situations like this but not on this scale, and we will try and update you as regularly as we can," she said.

She expressed her deepest sympathies to the loved ones of the four people killed in the fire.

She said the shire had been overwhelmed by offers of help and the Lord Mayor's Distress Relief Fund had been activated to collect donations.

"At this stage we're not asking for donations of food - we don't know what people are going to need," Mrs Brown said.

"If you want to help make a financial donation ... by going to the shire."

On Facebook Korske Ara said he spent yesterday preparing for the worst.

"We've moved livestock, machinery and organised our firefighting gear," he said.

"We've got one worker driving a water tanker heading to a neighbouring fire, two more on the farm fire truck heading to another fire and I'm building fire fighting rig with whatever I can find in case embers fly our way."

Department of Fire and Emergency Services incident controller Craig Waters told the meeting they hoped to have the fire contained by 6pm tomorrow.

He said there had been 15,000 stock losses so far.

Twenty-one Telstra towers remain down in the area, meaning some locals have been unable to make contact with loved ones.

Mrs Brown urged locals to resist the temptation to travel back into the firezone.

DFES said Horizon Power had advised that parts of the Shire of Esperance remain without power.

It expects the damage to assets in the bushfire-affected areas to be significant and it could be several days before power is restored to those areas where poles and wires have been burned down.

The Shire of Esperance is urging residents who have "evacuated to town either to the Esperance Civic Centre or a private residence in town" to register at the civic centre so the Shire can keep track of people, or call the Red Cross on 1800 015 337 to register their name.

A State Inquiry Centre and an online register have also been activated for people trying to find out if their friends/relatives are safe.

The Department for Child Protection and Family Support is managing the registration and reunification system with the Red Cross.

Ms White said the system aimed to locate people caught up in the incident to let their family and friends know if they are safe.

It will also help reunite family members who may have become separated when the bushfire occurred.

Ms White said the system relied on people following one of two key steps:

People caught up in the bushfire should make sure they have registered their details at any of the emergency evacuation centres set up in the area, even if they are staying with friends.People in other parts of WA, interstate or overseas checking up on family or friends should call the Disaster Response Hotline on 1800 032 965, State Inquiry Centre on 1800 015 337 or visit redcross.org.au to register their details, or the details of those they are seeking information about.

People should not donate goods or second hand items at this point in time because these become an additional problem for welfare workers to deal with and may not be useful, the department said.

A community meeting in Norseman this afternoon was told the Norseman to Esperance road will remain shut for another two days, leaving about 30 people stranded at the evacuation centre in the town.

The Norseman fire has been contained but because of the remaining danger of the Cascade fires, DFES said the road had to remain closed.

The Norseman fires have burnt through 23,000ha.

The next community meeting in Norseman will be at 10am tomorrow.

Aerial patrols today enabled Horizon Power to identify more than 100 electricity poles that have burned down around Esperance.

In a statement released today, Horizon Power said that because the fires were still burning out of control, it would be unable to inspect power poles and lines in the worst-affected areas until later tomorrow.

"As of 3pm, 165 customers remain without power in the Salmon Gums, Grass Patch and Scaddan areas," the statement explained.

"We were able to restore power to more than 300 customers earlier today in the Dalyup and Munglinup areas.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the families and loved ones of those who have lost their lives or been injured as a result of these fires."

Horizon Power said it would fly an additional four to five crews to Esperance overnight to help with the restoration effort once DFES had given the all-clear.

"Our crews were given approval to enter the Cascades area this afternoon and from about 4pm work will begin on the replacement of four power poles burned down there," it said.

"Once that work is complete, power will be restored to a further 24 customers."

NIS Business general manager Craig Julian said he expected up to 200 poles had been lost in the fires.

“We expect the damage to our assets in the bushfire-affected areas to be significant and it could be several days before we can restore power to those areas where poles and wires have been burned down,” he said.

Western Power has provided Horizon Power with a helicopter that will patrol the remaining parts of the network later today and tomorrow.

If the wind changes and the fires change direction, Horizon Power may be required to turn off power to customers in at-risk areas.

People are urged to stay clear of all "electrical assets, in particular fallen powerlines".

Call 13 23 51 to report a fault.

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