Australia: Bushfire victims 'didn't receive warnings'

By Simon Santow, staff

A woman who was forced to flee Perth's devastating bushfires on horseback says authorities failed to issue proper alerts to people whose homes were in the path of the out-of-control blaze.

Sixty-eight homes were destroyed and 32 more were damaged by the massive fires which ripped through the suburbs of Kelmscott and Roleystone, south-east of the city centre, after being started by sparks from an angle grinder.

Now residents say they were forced to flee without protecting their homes or saving possessions because warnings about the speed and extent of the blaze came too late.

They also claim SMS and phone alerts came too late and internet updates were also tardy.

Hundreds of residents spent the past two nights in emergency accommodation and many are now being told they have no homes to return to.

Natalie DeGraff, who lost two houses and an office on her family's property, says they had no warning before being forced to evacuate at the last minute.

"The FESA [Fire and Emergency Services Authority] alert didn't come through. My dad's a registered homeowner so he's on their bushfire evacuation thing and he didn't get the notification until an hour after we'd evacuated at least," she said.

Ms DeGraff says the fire spread so quickly she was forced to flee on the back of her horse.

"I looked across the river and the flames were right there," she said.

"I was like 'Come here' and dad managed to help me catch him and we tacked him up. Dad drove the car and I rode so we got out just in time - literally."

Authorities deny they were late in issuing SMS alerts to people in the path of the fires, but some residents claim they did not receive any phone alerts at all.

FESA spokesman Bruce Telfer says the relevant warnings were passed on as soon as possible.

"Those state alert systems; there's no point sending it to people who've already been impacted by the fire," he said.

"We tend to use that as a last resort to tell people to take shelter - so those people still in front of the fire."

FESA rural operations coordinator Phill Cribb says people who live in bushfire-prone areas need to remain vigilant at all times.

"We knew that we were going to have issues if a fire was to start in the bush, and unfortunately on Saturday we did have a fire start which, given the conditions, the terrain and the limited access, certainly developed quickly," he said.

"In a lot of ways it's the community's safety; it's really about living in a bushfire-prone area and being aware that given certain conditions ... there's bushfire-ready action groups who go about street by street working with their communities.

"There is also a little bit of apathy, and community don't take that up."

Mr Cribb says only a short amount of time elapsed before warnings were sent to residents in affected areas.

"In the information that we have, based on the time that we've received the call and got crews on the ground and having a look at the ability to suppress that fire, it was only a matter of probably half an hour that we had an alert go out for that area, a short time after we went to an emergency warning," he said.

"These are all just steps that we've got to get that information out, and unfortunately if people are in their home with an air-conditioner on, the curtains closed on a hot day, they may not see it."

But Mr Cribb says it is possible there were delays between the time SMS alerts were sent to residents and the time they actually received them.

"That's the state alert system we have in West Australia tried and tested," he said.

"We do know that at times that depending on the carrier - and it goes to landlines and to the mobile network - and the congestion, there are delays.

"But it is not the panacea; it's part of the communications networks and alerts to the community to let them know that the fire's there; that they need to prepare, act and take appropriate actions to either stay or get out of the area the fire is being impacted upon."


Australian Broadcasting Corporation