Out of the fire-ing line and into the future.
A South West town came perilously close to destruction in February this year when one of the state’s worst bushfires threatened homes and lives in Northcliffe.
Four months on from the fire Digital Journalist Andrew Elstermann and photographer Ashley Pearce headed south to tell the story of the town’s lucky escape and find out what they learned from the experience.
THE captain of the Northcliffe Bushfire Brigade has warned the state government that a bushfire catastrophe is imminent unless urgent action is taken to reduce the fuel load in the South West.
Rod Parkes said there is nothing stopping another bushfire tearing through Northcliffe and the surrounding towns this summer unless steps are taken to reduce the amount of flammable scrubland.
“I don’t care if you burn it, slash it or mow it – whatever we have to do to get the fuel load down,” he said.
"Because, if we don't the results of the next bushfire could be disastrous."
WATCH: See how Northcliffe is recovering.
Mr Parkes voiced his concerns to Fairfax Media four months after Northcliffe came scarily close to being destroyed by one of the state’s worst bushfires.
When lightning struck the Shannon National Forrest on January 30, it sparked a massive inferno that lasted 20 days, tore through more than 98,000 hectares and had more than 1000 fire fighters battling it.
“Everyone involved in that bushfire had never seen one that big,” Mr Parkes said.
“No one could believe how fast it was travelling.”
Shire of Manjimup president Wade De Campo agreed with Mr Parkes’ assertions and said things could easily have been worse last summer.
“We were told Northcliffe would burn to the ground – it had been written off,” he said.
Mr De Campo said there were contingency plans in place for the fire to burn through Pemberton, Augusta and on towards Busselton.
Thankfully periods of favourable wind conditions about a week in gave crews a chance to funnel the fire south of the town site until it got to the coast.
“After a few days the wind changed and the fire could be pushed out to sea,” Mr De Campo said.
He praised the efforts of everyone involved in steering the fire around a number of small towns on the way to Windy Harbour.
But he said that the crews had been blessed with a whole lot of luck, almost like divine intervention.
“The efforts of the fire fighters were all extraordinary – but God put the fire out,” he said.
Mr Parkes admitted a bushfire of that size could never be fought head on.
Aerial crews bombed the farmhouses with water and flame-retardant foam to protect them while the bushland was given up as lost.
While the Northcliffe town site was evacuated, a number of farmers stayed put to defend their properties.
This included Max and Debbie Rudd who spent years in town as dairy farmers before they decided to swap to growing avocados about five years ago.
“We decided to stay and defend because we had spent five years getting the trees going and if they had burnt it would have crippled us,” Mrs Rudd said.
For days the pair, along with the farmers at neighbouring properties did what they needed to, to protect their land and their livelihood.
“I’ve experienced bushfires since I was seven years old – you’ve just got to keep your cool,” Mr Rudd said.
Supporting the farmers who stayed was general store owner Graham Munro who kept his store open as an information post for those still in town.
Each night Rod Parkes would stop by and shade in the newly burnt areas on a large map.
“Many of the farmers are great fire fighters – they know what they are doing and how to look after themselves,” Mr Munro said.
“We did what we could to keep them stocked with supplies and the information they needed.”
Meanwhile Debbie Rudd used the power of social media to keep the outside world informed of proceedings.
“I was so grateful that I was able to reassure people that their homes were still standing,” she said.
“The not knowing what things were like would have been awful for them.”
Both Mr Munro and the Rudds agreed that their choice to stay was right for them and the hardest part of the bushfire for those who left was the unknown.
About half the residents from Northcliffe spent more than a week at the evacuation centre in Pemberton and once they were allowed to return home, they repaired the damage and moved on.
However Mr Parkes and Mr De Campo believe there is a very real possibility it could all happen again.
After February’s fire, the men flew over the affected area and noted there are still areas of forest to the east of Northcliffe that have been unaffected by fire for more than 30 years.
Mr De Campo said fuel maps show several high-risk areas.
“We dodged a bullet here this year but there are a number of our towns which are still under threat including Pemberton, Quinninup and Deanmill,” he said.
“It is shaping up to be a particularly bad season this summer with low rainfall in the region and we are still doing prescribed burns in June which is unheard of.”
He said he had spoken to regional development minister Terry Redman and environment minister Albert Jacobs to get more funding for back burning which they supported.
“In a drying climate, it is not acceptable to say we should not burn to reduce fuel loads,” Mr De Campo said.
“The line that you should not reduce fuel loads through prescribed burning because of the risk to the environment is rubbish – it is pure and blatant lies.
“Fuel reduction is critical and we have to deal with it now.”
Figures from the department of parks and wildlife indicate prescribed burning targets will not be met for the 2014/15 financial year with eight days remaining.
Prescribed burning is the primary tool available to the department to manage bush fuel load – being live and dead vegetation that accumulates over time and burns easily.
“Achieving the target is largely dependent on suitable weather conditions and the required human and other resources being available to safely undertake prescribed burning,” a department spokesperson said.
The department aims to burn each section of bushland once every seven to nine years, depending on the nature of the vegetation and desirable ecological outcomes.
“There is a growing need to address fuel load levels in the South West,” a department spokesperson said.
“The department assesses fire risk using a number of variables and a fuel age plan is maintained that indicates the years since the last fire.
“But fuel loads vary across the landscape and within individual forest blocks depending on the mixture of forest types occurring within those blocks.”
More than $20 million in Royalties for Regions funding was announced earlier this year to assist in prescribed burning initiatives over the next four years.