Engulfed in a second on Heartbreak Ridge

Kelly BellThe West Australian
Engulfed in a second on Heartbreak Ridge
Camera IconEngulfed in a second on Heartbreak Ridge Credit: The West Australian

It was an experience we will never forget.

We had been taken into a fire zone to get a handle on the firefighting efforts and all seemed relatively calm.

The blackened earth was merely smouldering as we drove down a newly cut firebreak in “mild” fire conditions at Heartbreak Ridge, off the Eyre Highway an hour east of Norseman.

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Then, in what felt like the blink of an eye, we were surrounded by flames.

Firefighters have again worked through the night to battle the fires. More than 200 firefighters and pastoralists are tackling the lightning-sparked blazes.

FOLLOW OUR ROLLING COVERAGE

In a four-wheel-drive utility, we were checking out the work to cut a 5km firebreak in the Dundas Nature Reserve, which a bulldozer and grader had started on just an hour earlier.

It was part of a concerted effort by seven Department of Parks and Wildlife staff and two contractors to stop the out-of-control fire before it shut the Eyre Highway, the only sealed link between WA and South Australia.

About 1km along the track, a call came over the over the radio — there had been “hop-over” — meaning the fire had broken the containment line.

“That’s not what we wanted to hear,” our driver, DPAW operations officer for the fire Lyle Gilbert, told us.

Stopping first to move fallen trees from the track, Mr Gilbert pushed on as his team called in to say the runaway fire was now covering one hectare. Before our eyes, embers took off on both sides of our vehicle and the track was clouded with smoke as fresh fire took to the trees and vegetation.

“It’s taken off like a steam train ... all it takes is a bit of wind to pick up the embers,” Mr Gilbert told this team over the radio. “We’ll have to come back and round it up again.”

The heat was immense, making the windows hot to touch.

“It’s the radiant heat that kills people,” Mr Gilbert said.

It was only 25C yesterday and for the most part the wind had stayed away — nothing like the hellish conditions of Tuesday and Wednesday.

Yet here we were, witnesses to a flare-up that seemingly came from nowhere. The thought of facing the conditions at Esperance, Cascade and Norseman on Tuesday was sickening.

“These really are mild fire conditions ... imagine if it was 40C,” Mr Gilbert said.

Smoke swirling, he had called the dozer back.

With visibility less than 30m, more hop-overs forced the crew back over land they had already covered.

Simply listening to the radio communication was exhausting and to the uneducated, like us, quite scary.

But showing incredible calmness, the crew pushed on, bulldozing and wetting down flames while cutting a new line — work that could be nothing but exhausting.

“You don’t always have a lot of resources but you make do,” Mr Gilbert said.

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