This summary of the November 2011 DEC prescribed burn escape disasters has been sourced from the WAFA's submission to the Keelty Margaret River Bushfire Inquiry.

We note that the meaningfulness of the Keelty Margaret River Bushfire Inquiry was diminished from the outset by the Premier preparing very narrow terms of reference for the inquiry to operate within. There has been considerable pressure applied for the terms of reference to be broadened but the State Government has not budged.

The Western Australian Forest Alliance (WAFA) monitored the various government websites before, during and after the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) lost control of its prescribed burns in November 2011.

Conclusions

1.         The whole basis and practice of prescribed burning must be thoroughly examined.

2.         The consequences for the natural environment of prescribed burns and escapes must be fully considered and mitigated

3.         Fires should not be lit in the summer months or during extreme weather conditions.

4.         Better upper level coordination of fire management is essential

5.         Flare ups and escapes must be dealt with promptly and effectively

6.         Ignition as a form of risk mitigation must be seriously questioned. Suppression may be a better option.
 

In the days preceding the November 2011 bushfires, which resulted in dozens of houses being lost and tens of thousands of hectares of forest and bushland being blackened, DEC failed to plan appropriately for an approaching heat wave.

DEC was lighting new burns and reigniting others in the days leading up to the extreme weather despite weather forecasting for that period, which showed the high degree of risk that the Department was taking in doing so. There was an apparent lack of coordination and appropriate response systems at district and head office levels of DEC.  

A smoke alert was issued by DEC on Saturday 19th November for the area including Yallingup, Busselton and Bunbury and from that alert it is evident that at some level of the Department there existed an awareness of the bigger picture and of the number of fires burning in the days leading up to the extreme weather.

However, it is apparent from what followed that there was completely insufficient coordination and suppression activity.  

Another smoke alert issued on the same day (Saturday 19th November) relating specifically to Gracetown said that DEC anticipated that the prescribed burns it had lit earlier in the week would run into previously burnt ground, following which the smoke would clear.

DEC either failed to read the weather forecasts or to judge what would happen as a result of the approaching weather or both. As a result, rather than recognising the risk that was posed by having prescribed burns under way and making plans to suppress them, the Department continued to light more fires.

On Sunday 20th November the weather forecast was for strong northerly winds and high temperatures. DEC continued to light new burns, including the Milyeannup burn 20 km SW of Nannup which ended up burning more than 60, 000 ha (this figure includes the 6, 531 ha DEC intended to burn and the 55, 000 ha that burnt as a result of the escape.)

Despite the approaching extreme weather DEC split its resources and over-committed itself and the other emergency services with devastating consequences.

On Monday 21st November DEC reignited the Margaret River prescribed burn as well as many others; including the Mt Lindesay National Park burn 19km NE of Denmark which also escaped during the week with significant ecological ramifications.

On this day DEC advertised its intention to light the following 11 burns:

·        100ha E Mundaring

·        2530ha NE Walpole

·        50ha NW Margaret River (Ellenbrook)

·        1500ha S Collie

·        10ha NW Margaret River (Prevelly)

·        7000ha NE Denmark (Sheepwash-Mt Lindesay NP)

·        50ha S Nannup (Milyeannup)

·        5ha SE Busselton

·        1600ha Manjimup

·        20ha NW Albany

·        5km NNE Walpole

On Wednesday 23rd November, the day that DEC lost control with dramatic consequences, temperatures above 30 degrees and northerly winds were forecast for the coming days and but three more large burns were listed for ignition.

These burns were:

·        1km NW Denmark

·        100ha NW Manjimup

·        1km NE Walpole

By the end of the day DEC had lost control of the Margaret River and Nannup fires and its two Denmark burns were set to make their escapes the following day. The Department was also having to deal with a fire that originated on private property in the Perth Hills suburb of Gosnells, as well as two fires in the north, at Eneabba and Three Springs on Burma Rd Nature Reserve, as well as watching over its Walpole burn.

The emergency services were overwhelmed by the Margaret River fire and could not cope with the broader crisis that was unfolding.

If the Nannup fire had been burning towards a town or settlement and DEC and FESA had not been able to make a decision to downgrade their responses in order to prioritise the Margaret River fire, WA may have experienced a much more dramatic bushfire disaster than materialised. As it turned out, the Nannup prescribed burn escape burnt at mostly very high intensities through approximately 60,000ha of bushland, with catastrophic ecological implications.

The following day, on Thursday 24th at 9:40am DEC issued a statement on its website saying that firefighters would be lighting fires and burning out areas that were posing a threat in Kilcarnup and at the mouth of the MargaretRiver.

By 11:50am fire had crossed the Margaret River mouth.

Was DEC’s decision to light more fires appropriate at a time when there were strong northerly winds and high temperatures? Or did this in fact create, or exacerbate, the next wave of the disaster and the eventual destruction of homes and the shop in Prevelly?

There appears to be no one in any agency with an overview of DEC’s prescribed burns with the power to postpone or cancel them if lighting any one of them, let alone several at the same time, would pose an unacceptable risk to people, property or the environment.

Consequences of the Margaret River prescribed burns and escapes

FAUNA

Before DEC lit the fire in Ellenbrook two local groups met with DEC to express their serious concerns. 

The Possum Centre Busselton and the Busselton Dunsborough Environment Centre, the groups that campaigned for changes to DEC’s plans to burn the area, as well residents whose properties are surrounded by burnt country, have described a complete loss of wildlife. One resident was quoted in the local paper on Boxing Day saying, ‘There are no animals where we are. There is not even an ant on the ground. I don’t know how that is going to come back.’

Possum Centre President Ms Uta Wicke expects that 90% of the possum population was killed in the fire. Around 20 possums were found alive by dedicated rescue workers after the fire but Ms Wicke says that most of those had to be euthanised because of the extent of their injuries. Western Ringtail Possums are threatened with extinction and the Ellenbrook area was a critical refuge for one of the last remaining populations of this special creature. See http://www.possumcentre.com.au/Pages/ringtail.html for more information.

The Ellenbrook area contains a Threatened Ecological Community and had not been burnt since 1982. Some areas within the boundaries hadn’t been burnt for many years before then. It was one of the last areas providing the necessary habitat conditions for species of flora and fauna that require long periods between fires to survive.

The impacts on the black cockatoos, which have also been severely affected by the Nannup fire, have also been extreme. Cockatoos will not nest in hollows that have been recently burnt, and seed does not reestablish in the canopy for five or more years following crown scorch such as has been experienced as a result of the November prescribed burn disasters.

DEC advertised its intention to create a ‘mosaic of burnt and unburnt patches’ within the boundary of the prescribed burn to allow for refuges of unburnt forest, heath and bushland in which the many reptiles, mammals, birds, insects and other creatures could survive during and after the fire. In order to protect the population of possums, to which DEC ascribed priority in its success criteria for the burn, according to DEC’s burn prescription, no more than 20% of their habitat (Agonis flexuosa) should have been burnt. Instead, the fire burnt out of control and when it did reduce in intensity DEC burnt out all the unburnt pockets in an attempt to achieve ‘burn security’, killing any surviving individuals who had nowhere to escape, and destroying any chance populations had to recover.

FLORA

One declared rare flora (Caladenia excelsa) and four priority flora species (Acacia subracemosa, Bossiaea disticha and Banksia sessilis) occur in the area.

Caladenia excelsa is Australia’s largest flowering orchid with flowers up to 25cm across and 15cm in length. It grows only along the Leeuwin coast and is not one of the orchids that flowers prolifically in the season following summer fire (Brown et al., Orchids of WA, UWA Press, 2008).

CULTURAL HERITAGE

This area of the coast is very significant to Indigenous people. Many important sites exist within and adjacent to the burn boundaries. Any attempts to protect these areas from DEC’s prescribed burn lost priority as the fire burnt out of control.

PROPERTY

Many families lost their homes in the fire that was supposed to protect them. And although they will be assisted with rebuilding, many people had to leave too fast to collect those things that cannot be replaced such as photographs, journals, family heirlooms. Many pets and farm animals died in the fire.

DEC and FESA communication problems

At 5:50am on Friday the 25th as the situation was becoming more controlled in Margaret River FESA reported that it was now in charge of the Milyeannup fire near Nannup and that it had burnt through 27,000ha.

It is unclear what happened at an operational level within DEC and FESA and between the two organisations in the nineteen hours between 11amon Thursday, when DEC issued a statement that the fire was out of control, and 5:50amon Friday when FESA issued advice that it was now managing the fire. 

Still, only thirty firefighters were on the scene at the Nannup fire, which was entirely insufficient in the circumstances.

Fortunately, on Friday the weather was milder which meant that fire was burning with less intensity, but by 3:15pm, when FESA reported that DEC was again managing the fire, it was still not under control. At this stage the fire was threatening developments in the Lake Jasper and Donnelly River areas as it continued to move in an east, north-easterly direction out of control and uncontained.

In its 3:15pm notification on Friday, FESA stated that the fire had been reported at 10am on Thursday the 24th, not 10 pm as it had previously stated. It is still not clear who was in charge between 11am that day and 5:50am the following day when FESA made the initial statement. Clearly, there was a breakdown in process and a failure to properly manage the unfolding disaster.

It appears that the circumstances in Margaret River had entirely overwhelmed the emergency services.

On Saturday 26th November a number of factual inconsistencies were still being reported. In the FESA notification at 1:35pm it was reported that 24,000ha had been burnt (down from 27,000 previously reported) and also, it stated that the fire had been reported on Wednesday 23rd November, not Thursday 24th.

At 4pm it was reported that 120 firefighters were now on the ground and they were now, four days after the fire escaped, finally being supported by two water bombers.

Flare Ups were not dealt with promptly or sufficiently leading to the next wave of the disaster which then threatened Molloy Island residents.

At 2:30pm on Sunday 27th November it was reported that a spot fire to the east of Lake Quitjup had started. It was being tracked but retained the potential to flare up.

On Wednesday, a full week after the DEC burn had become out of control, the fire to the east of Lake Quitjup broke containment lines and an emergency warning was issued because of the speed with which the fire was moving towards private property. It was downgraded shortly afterwards as the fire speed reduced.

Eighty firefighters were being assisted by six fixed wing water bombers and a helicopter. The resources on the ground were insufficient.

At 7:15pm on Thursday 28th DEC issued another emergency warning as it lost control of the fire again. Still, only sixty firefighters were on the scene, compared with the 400 that were on the ground in Margaret River the week before.

At 11:30 FESA took over control of the fire. The responsibility for the fire had been passed back and forward between DEC and FESA a number of times. The fire was now threatening lives and homes in three locations and was still out of control and uncontained. It had been eight days since it escaped from a DEC prescribed burn.

 

Consequences of the Nannup prescribed burn and escape

FAUNA

The fauna in this area were already under significant strain as a result of two other major prescribed burn escapes in the immediate area in the previous thirteen months. This escape combines with the other two (one in October 2010 and the other in December 2010) to create an area of more than 90 000ha that has been burnt at high intensities in a period of time too short for the area burnt first to recover before more habitat was burnt out.

Much of the area is National Park and was home to several species of fauna already threatened with extinction due to insufficient habitat and inappropriate fire regimes. Many individual animals who had been displaced by the earlier prescribed burn escapes when their habitat was destroyed were taking refuge in this 60,000ha area which would have significantly increased the death toll from this prescribed burn escape.

The following endangered species were all known to be living in this area; the mainland quokka, the three species of black cockatoo (Carnaby’s, Baudin’s and Forest Red-tailed), Western Ringtail Possums and Balston’s Pygmy Perch. 

Balston’s Pygmy Perch received a special mention in DEC’s burn prescription for Milyeannup which states,

 The Milyeannup Brook supports the only breeding population of Balston’s Pygmy Perch in the Blackwood River Catchment. (DEC, BB125 Milyeannup Sollya Prescription, 09/11)

It was necessary for the survival of this population that a significant proportion of the fringing riparian vegetation was not burnt and that there was not a significant increase in turbidity in the river resulting from excess sediment entering the system. WAFA is waiting for information on whether the population survived DEC losing all control of this fire.

Cockatoos were already suffering massive habitat loss and a lack of seed, their major food source, in the canopy of the trees burnt in the previous 13 months.

Local cockatoo carers near Nannup are experiencing unprecedented numbers of starving birds coming to them for supplementary feeding. They are predicting local extinctions due to the dramatic loss of life and ongoing lack of feeding and nesting habitat. Red tailed black cockatoos were nesting. It is unlikely any of the chicks would have survived the fire and the smoke it generated. This will have implications for the viability of the next generation.

Local carers report that flocks of birds wait in the trees for their turn at the feeding posts. Carers can’t put seed out on the ground because the kangaroos take it, so the starving birds who are a part of a strong community, wait their turn. These carers are also feeding and taking care of around 80 rehabilitated cockatoos in their large aviaries. The adjoining forest, known as Helms, has become a crucial refuge for these birds, and many other species of native fauna, and it is being prepared for logging (Jan 2012). Contact WAFA if you would like to make a donation to the Nannup cockatoo rehabilitation centre of the effort to prevent logging of Helms.       

Quokkas and Possums

Both the mainland quokka and the Western Ringtail Possum are threatened with extinction. The two major threats to their survival are habitat loss and inappropriate fire regimes. The three prescribed burn escapes that have burnt over 90,000ha have combined to have catastrophic implications for these animals. At this stage the upcoming inquiry will not consider ecological implications of the fire, or even assess what happened to cause the Milyeannup prescribed burn escape. It is crucial for the survival of our native fauna that DEC is required to alter burning policies and practices to protect these vulnerable fauna species.

PROPERTY

The worst affected property lost $350 000 in sheds, machinery and lost production. These farmers report that they were told half an hour before the fire ripped through their property that there was no danger to them because the fire was heading in the opposite direction. They say that despite there having been several fire units stationed nearby no one came to them to let them know they were in any danger.

Now, they are unsure whether they will be compensated for their losses and DEC has told them that the Department will have to be proven negligent before they consider providing assistance.

Another area of private property near the coast was badly burnt at great personal loss to the owners. The land is a wildlife refuge and hadn’t been burnt for seventeen years, providing habitat to those species of flora and fauna that require long periods between fires to survive.

DENMARKon 23rd November 2011

DEC had two burns going north of Denmark at this time, one in Styx  block (known locally as Somerset Hill) 17km NW of the town and one in Sheepwash block in the Mt Lindesay National Park NE of Denmark town. The Department had begun the burns in Styx and Sheepwash earlier in the season. It then reignited the Sheepwash burn on Tuesday the 22nd with full access to reliable forecasting for approaching extreme weather conditions. On Wednesday the 23rd DEC reignited the Styxburn despite hot windy conditions and the fact that several other burns were already being conducted in the district and across the south-west.

At 2:50pmDEC’s prescribed burn in Sheepwash block in the Mt Lindesay National Park was reported as having escaped. DEC was officially managing the incident according to notifications on their website. Local volunteer fire fighters and the Denmark Shire were on the ground trying to get the fire under control. It was at this same time that houses started burning in MargaretRiverand DEC was fully occupied trying to bring that prescribed burn escape under control.

 

Consequences of the Denmark prescribed burn and escape

Mt Lindesay National Park is a Threatened Ecological Community (TEC) and provides critical habitat to unique and threatened wildlife. A TEC is a vulnerable ecosystem that is poorly represented and at risk of being wiped out. Mt Lindesay developed in isolation from the surrounding area when the sea level was significantly higher and as a result the ecosystem is unique in the landscape.

DEC intended to burn 7829 hectares in the Mt Lindesay NP. The total area burnt as a result of the prescribed burn and the uncontrolled escape is in fact more than 15 000 hectares. 

To make matters worse, directly over Mt Barker Rd from this bushfire disaster is the 8000 hectare area that DEC burnt last summer. This means that more than 23 000 hectares of critical habitat have been burnt in the past 12 months with potentially disastrous implications for vulnerable local populations of fauna.

Margaret River Bushfire disaster November 2011