A bushfire that threatened homes in Upper Swan in January was a dramatic reminder that fires can get out of control even without extreme weather.
The fire broke out in bushland near Bells Rapids in the City of Swan on the night of 8 January. It had been a fairly typical summer’s day with temperatures in the low 30s and a fire danger rating of ‘high’.
North East Metropolitan District Officer Craig Garrett, one of the incident controllers, said conditions weren’t immediate cause for alarm.
“Conditions were moderate when the fire was first reported, but as crews began trying to contain it the wind strengthened and changed direction,” Craig said.
“The fire escalated and for the next couple of days we were up against searing temperatures with winds gusting up to 45 kilometres an hour.”
Crews battled steep terrain and variable winds, making their work even more hazardous.
An Emergency Warning was issued around 2am on the first night as the fire came dangerously close to homes in Copley Road, and firefighters worked to protect them from ember attack.
Craig said welfare was a key focus for the Incident Management Team (IMT) due to the tough conditions.
“It was very hot, so we had to pay close attention to fatigue levels and making sure crews were well rested and hydrated,” he said.
Around 130 volunteer and career firefighters used tankers and heavy machinery to contain the fire. Some of the volunteer groups on scene were Bullsbrook Volunteer Fire and Emergency Services, Bush Fire Brigades from East and West Swan, West Gidgegannup and Wanneroo, and Swan State Emergency Service.
Once the fire was declared a Level 2 incident, DFES worked in partnership with Parks and Wildlife (P&W) and the City of Swan to get the fire under control.
The difficult terrain made building containment lines challenging and time consuming.
“This meant the risk of escape was very real and the potential threat to the surrounding community was constant throughout the incident,” Craig said.
“The fire also came close to the Great Northern Highway and east-west rail corridor, making the task even more complex.”
Night shift incident controller A/Superintendent Peter Sutton agreed multi-agency cooperation was key to a successful outcome.
“We were able to manage the fire efficiently thanks to cooperation from local government, SES, P&W, WA Police, St John Ambulance, Brookfield Rail and others,” he said.
The fire ripped through about 130 hectares, with no properties lost, minimal impact on the nearby rail line and only minor damage to fencing and power poles.
A/Superintendent Sutton said the Incident Management team used a combination of strategies both on the ground and in the air.
“Fighting fires in terrain like this at night is very challenging and dangerous for firefighters,” he said.
“There was a real focus on safety, and ground crews worked extremely hard overnight before firefighting aircraft could return in the morning.
“The aircraft were tasked with containing the fire at first light and the DFES Aerial Intelligence platform plotted the fire shape and helped us identify areas of concern.
“Local volunteer brigades also used portable pumps to mop up fire along the river area.”
DFES staff in the Metropolitan Operations Centre and ComCen worked behind the scenes to manage communications, logistics, public information and more.
Despite the challenging nature of the fire, crews were able to contain it within 24 hours, and control it within 48. The cause was undetermined.
Craig said the incident was good reminder for the community to be prepared throughout the bushfire season, no matter how benign the weather might seem.
“You need to prepare for the worst-case scenario and have a plan B because conditions can change quickly, and a fire can threaten lives and property without warning.”