Fire report slams delay in water bomber call-up

Daniel Emerson and Angela PownallThe West Australian
David and Linda Campbell and Dan Sanderson, who contributed to the cost of the report.
Camera IconDavid and Linda Campbell and Dan Sanderson, who contributed to the cost of the report. Credit: The West Australian

A privately commissioned report into last year’s deadly Esperance blaze found repeated requests for aerial water bombers to suppress the fire in its early stages were not met.

The fire was started by lightning in unallocated Crown land south of Lake Mends and north of Cascade at 5am on Sunday, November 15.

Once it spread into farmland the following day, there was “no prospect” of stopping it until weather conditions subsided.

“The time to contain and extinguish the fire was during that critical period,” according to the report by West Perth law firm Pacer Legal.

It was not until Thursday, two days after the fire front crossed Griggs Road causing four fatalities, that volunteers reported water bombers reaching the fire ground.

During the critical period there were two local fixed-wing agricultural aircraft suitable for water bombing available, but they were never used because the pilots did not have the training to legally do the job.

The report contains a claim by Eyre Liberal MP Graham Jacobs that he approached Emergency Services Minister Joe Francis on the Tuesday afternoon to request water bombers but was told aerial suppression was not used on a fire until it had been declared a level-three incident.

The report found the firebreak between the Crown land and farmland had last been cleared using chains six or seven years before.

It also uncovered a communication breakdown between the Shire of Esperance and Department of Fire and Emergency Services leading to each agency believing the other was in charge of the fire between the Monday evening and Tuesday evening.

A DFES spokeswoman yesterday said it was incorrect that water bombers were used only when an incident was elevated to level three.

She said the communication breakdown had no effect on the resources available to fight the fire.

At the time there had been 29 fires burning across the South West, creating competing demands for resources.

Grass Patch farmer Dan Sanderson, one of the locals who banded together to commission the report, said it demonstrated the fire should have been suppressed sooner.

“It was made a category-three fire at 7.30pm on Tuesday with four people dead and 130,000 hectares burnt out,” he said.

“It was too late.”

Linda Campbell, who with husband David owns the property where three farm workers died, said more needed to be done to empower local pilots if DFES aircraft were unavailable.

"Mr Francis said he would not direct DFES to allocate resources based on a conversation with an MP and politicians should leave operations to the experts."

If we need to cut a line to fit it, maybe the one about the chaining being six or seven years ago.

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