RESIDENTS who lost homes in the Margaret River bushfires last November claimed on Sunday the assistance process had “stalled” and that they felt “abandoned” by the State Government.
Tim Moore, who lost his Chuditch Place, Gnarabup, home and consulting business in the fires told a public meeting called by consultants Noetic Solutions Pty Ltd – engaged by the government to report on how the Margaret River fire fight was managed and how another prescribed burn at Nannup escaped and was eventually suppressed – there was still “a lot of grief, a lot of pain and they (government) should not leave it (compensation settlement) too long.
“The funds given out there and then (initially) were very helpful, we had to find accommodation, buy food, clothes,” he said. “But what’s holding us up now is the government.
“I need cash flow, my business also burned down. My daughter is still sleeping on the floor because I can’t afford to replace her bed.
“They need to keep the process (assistance funding) moving, with an expectation of a final payout for what it (home) is worth. The process has stalled.”
Mr Moore and other residents were extremely critical of reported comments by Premier Colin Barnett about compensation for fire victims and the risks of living in bush areas.
“We’re at least $200,000 out of pocket and he’s (Premier) worried about the possibility of double-dipping,” Mr Moore said. “As for the risk, I don’t accept the risk when a government department lights a one-kilometre fire front under those conditions (that prevailed on November 22 and were forecast for November 23 and 24) and then simply walks away.”
Another resident who lost a home said his insurance company would pay for a rented house until November, however, he had been told it may be next June before his own home was rebuilt.
“Come November I can’t afford to live anywhere,” the man said.
Artist Mark Heussenstamm, who lost several houses, told Noetic consultants “we feel we’ve been abandoned”.
John Bradbury, who lost his home in Wooditch Road, said “all hell is going to break loose if there is not decisive action after this report (due to be handed to the Government on May 28).
“We’ve held off until after the Keelty report and we’ve held off until after this report.
“The next stage needs to be helping these people. People on the ground here need to be met with and assessed for compensation,” he said.
In answer to set questions from Noetic consultants Justin Kelly and Anthony McGinness, residents maintained their rage at the Department of Environment and Conservation for persisting with prescribed burns in the Ellensbrook block and on the ridge behind Prevelly in the days before the fires escaped, and only five of the 16 residents at the meeting said they had advanced warning DEC intended to burn bush reserves so close to their homes.
Two residents said they would have stayed home because of the risk and implemented their own fire plans, had they known DEC was going ahead with the prescribed burns in the forecast conditions. They said they were prevented getting back to their homes to put fire plans into action by police roadblocks.
Victims were also critical of the bushfire being controlled from a DEC headquarters at Kirup, close to 100 kilometres away, on Wednesday, November 23, and believed that a full appreciation of the situation did not get through to the incident controller there.
Houses were burning while fire trucks and crews waited at Prevelly for instruction on where to go and what to do, Garrath Stewart claimed. Others claimed opportunities on the Wednesday to protect Prevelly and Gnarabup were not fully exploited before a predicted wind change which drove the Ellensbrook fire across the river.
Victims were also critical of the shire council for what they saw as a lack of clearing roadsides and understory vegetation on reserves under its control when residents were required to slash grass and create firebreaks.
However, they praised the council and Department of Child Protection for the speed with which the evacuation centre was established and the help available.
MP backs 'siren on the hill' warning solution
A FIRE “siren on the hill” should be part of a “suite of alerts” to warn residents of approaching bushfires according to South West MLC Barry House.
He told Sunday’s meeting that a “layered approach” involving SMS and radio alerts, and maybe a new trial system of radio frequency alerts, was needed.
“Fire brigades tend to be very cautious about the siren on the hill stuff, but I believe it should be part of a suite of alerts available,” Mr House said.
Residents agreed improved mobile phone coverage was the most important safety issue that should be addressed by the government. SMS alerts were unreliable because of the area’s “patchy” mobile phone coverage, they said.
Garrath Stewart told of first-hand experience with SMS fire alerts while holidaying in Victoria during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires.
“We were getting SMS alerts on the mobile phone every 15 minutes,” he said. “Here, seven kilometres out of town and there’s no mobile reception. Four hours after my house burned down I got an SMS message saying that there was a fire risk.”
In other comments to the meeting Mr House said he wanted to see the local fire brigade captain given initial control of bushfires to ensure local knowledge was used in planning the fire suppression fight
He said across the state local government “doesn’t seem to insist” on road verge clearing and volunteer fire brigades lacked funding to undertake controlled burns on road verges.
Roadblocks added to victims' ire
THE perceived attitude of police at roadblocks during the fires was an issue for victims attending Sunday’s meeting, some of whom were prevented from getting to their homes to try to protect them.
Tim Moore told of a harrowing 40-minute drive back to Margaret River on the Wednesday of the fires, every 10 minutes taking increasingly panicked calls from his 16-year-old daughter who was alone in the family home that later burned to the ground.
Mr Moore said radio reports put the fire at six kilometres from Prevelly, but he realised it was much closer when he was stopped at a police road block at the Caves and Witchcliffe roads intersection.
“I explained I had to get a 16-year-old girl on her own, out of a house, but they wouldn’t let me through,” he said. “I asked them if they would send somebody to get her for me, but they wouldn’t.
“I’ll admit I contemplated running over the (police) officer to go and get her.
“There was no phone reception, I had to leave, drive back up the hill to where there was phone coverage and ring my daughter and tell her to go to a neighbour’s house.”
Garrath Stewart said he put out flames at a neighbour’s house, jumped in his car and left his Orchid Ramble home as the fire approached on the Wednesday.
He said he drove through blinding smoke along Wallcliffe Rd, planning to go to Surfers Point because he assumed that would be the safest place, but was stopped by police at a roadblock just before Prevelly.
“I said my house was about to burn and I wanted to get to Surfers Point. He said ‘I’m not letting you drive down there.’
“I said ‘Do you want me to go back to my house and be burnt with it?’ He said ‘I don’t care what you do, I’m not letting you through’.
Mr Stewart said he was forced to drive back through the smoke along Wallcliffe Road, in front of the fire destroying his and other homes in the Isaacs Ridge area, to Caves Road.
Fire victims were also critical of the delay and frustration caused by a police road block late on the Saturday after the fires, when they were first allowed back to what was left of their homes.
Several told of waiting for more than an hour in a four-kilometre queue of cars while police checked whether people were residents. The following day there were no checks or entry restrictions.