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Fighting fires near and far
Monday 8 July 2019 – 1:00 PM

​Firefighters in Western Australia’s north are being kept busy with bushfire season already ramping up as they prepare for the challenges of battling bushfires in some of the most remote parts of the State. 

More than 1,300 bushfires burned in the Kimberley, Pilbara and Midwest Gascoyne regions in 2018 with Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) officers and volunteer firefighters often travelling hundreds of kilometres to help bring blazes under control.

DFES Superintendent Pilbara Peter McCarthy said the remoteness of towns and communities did present challenges but the dedication of emergency services personnel across the regions means they are prepared for it.

“Tropical Cyclone Veronica brought heavy rainfall to coastal parts of the Pilbara but it was relatively dry for much of the wet season up north so we have a typically busy bushfire season ahead of us,” Superintendent McCarthy said.

“Volunteers and DFES personnel have already been dealing with a number of fires this year and are ready for an increase in activity as it gets warmer.

“Response to incidents can be quite different to other parts of the State as we are working with greater distances and limited personnel. Turning out to an incident often requires hours of travelling before we even reach the site of the bushfire.

“While many bushfires tend to burn in inaccessible territory and don’t impact too much, we are proactive in deploying as quickly as possible to fires that are or have potential to impact a community.”

The road network and availability of personnel in an area where many volunteers work shift work in the mining industry are also factors that can stretch resources. 

“The limited major highways and quality of smaller, unsealed roads means the most direct route to the location of a fire could take us many hours to reach and if it is a larger scale fire we could be deploying brigades from towns near and far,” Superintendent McCarthy said.

“Dangerous fire conditions can threaten property and lives so we use satellite imagery and prediction modelling tools to help us plan ahead and deploy crews quickly to help fires from escalating.

“The Nullagine bushfire in October last year was a good example of the extensive planning and management that goes into bushfire suppression to protect a remote community.”

Multiple fires were sparked by dry lightning in uninhabited land near Nullagine and hot and windy conditions saw them grow and join up over a 24-hour period. The uninhabited land was interspersed with patches of burnt, low fuel areas of land and unburnt land making it difficult to predict the fire’s path.

The fire was monitored closely and by the following morning the fire front had stretched to a precarious 60 kilometres in length and had spread into a high fuel zone. Strong winds were also driving it towards the townsite of Nullagine. 

DFES worked closely with the Shire of East Pilbara to monitor the fire and based on the sheer size and weather conditions the call was made early to deploy resources to support Nullagine’s volunteers.

Marble Bar and Newman brigades as well as volunteers from a local minesite were deployed initially as they were only an hour away. Volunteers from Tom Price, over four and a half hours drive away, were also deployed early to ensure enough resources were available as the fire reached Nullagine. 

By the time the fire had reached the town, there were sufficient resources on site and the efforts of the firefighters meant they were able to prevent any loss of lives and infrastructure. Without the additional support the outcome could have been very different.

The Northern Australia seasonal bushfire outlook​ released by the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC indicates a normal fire potential for the State’s north with the area experiencing a dry summer period and below average rainfall in most parts. 

With much of the area bushfire prone there is no room for complacency and the community is reminded to prepare themselves and their property for bushfires now by visiting firechat.wa.gov.au.