Margaret River fire: Blaze still raging and fast moving as community meeting is held
A fast-moving, out-of-control bushfire continued to threaten lives and homes in the world-famous Margaret River region on Thursday night as authorities maintained a search for a real estate agent missing in the area.
The blaze, which started on Wednesday morning south-west of the Margaret River township remained at an emergency warning level on Thursday night as more than 150 firefighters battled to control the inferno with the help of aerial support.
Just after 9pm DFES said conditions had “improved which is assisting firefighting efforts but there is still a significant risk to the community”.
About 5000ha in the Leeuwin-Naturaliste National Park has been burnt so far.
“The situation in this area is extremely serious,” Department of Fire and Emergency Services commissioner Darren Klemm said on Thursday. “The fire is moving fast in multiple directions. A number of properties are under threat on or about Caves Road.”
Mr Klemm said hot conditions, strong winds, cave systems and access to machinery were making it “incredibly difficult” to contain the bushfire but hoped conditions would ease into Friday.
Bureau of Meteorology duty forecaster Bob Tarr said it would become more humid overnight and there could be a chance of drizzle which would be supportive of firefighting efforts.
“The extreme fire behaviour that occurred (on Thursday) with the very hot and dry conditions should diminish overnight,” he said.
There has so far been no loss of life or homes. But Mr Klemm said “this is a significant fire, let’s make no mistake about that”.
“It is serious to the extent that people who live in and around Caves Road ... certainly east of Caves Road, they need to be enacting their bushfire plan right now,” he said.
An evacuation centre was set up in Busselton, with a community meeting held on Thursday night.
About 45 people had registered as evacuees, but few required Department of Communities accommodation.
More than 200 residents attended the briefing by Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions incident controller Brad Barton, though most were concerned about the fire’s impact on Margaret River, or evacuees from Witchcliffe who were unable to return to their homes.
Mr Barton said fierce winds hindered firefighters’ efforts to contain the head fire, which leapt across most of Wednesday’s hard-won containment lines.
“We were unable to access the head fire at all today,” he said.
“Our efforts have been on protecting communities and the people in front of that fire.”
While no homes were destroyed, tourism infrastructure at Mammoth Cave, near where the fire started, was in doubt, and the iconic karri trees of the Boranup Drive were likely razed.
Residents voiced frustration that water bombing ceased on Wednesday afternoon despite winds dropping.
Mr Barton said the long-range tanker from NSW stood down its crews at 4.30pm due hours flown, as per CASA regulations, which meant they could not take to the air again until 10.30am yesterday.
One resident asked if “we have learned the lessons from the Esperance fire” and the crucial importance of air attack.
Firefighters were stretched when another emergency warning was issued for a second out-of-control fire in nearby Yallingup.
That fire started from a house fire that spread into the national park, authorities say.
The Yallingup blaze was downgraded to a watch and act alert just before 9pm on Thursday as conditions improved, but authorities stress conditions in the area are still unpredictable.
The cause of the Margaret River fire is undetermined but is under investigation by Busselton detectives and strike force Vulcan officers.
Mr Klemm said he was “unaware” of any connection between the fire and a man police said they held “urgent welfare concerns” for — 40-year-old Fremantle man Jordan Marshall.
Police say Mr Marshall was last seen near where the fire started — near the intersection of Caves and Calgardup roads — on Wednesday morning.
“Clearly our first priority always is preservation of life, so we will undertake those investigations as we go forward, but I do want to be very clear that there is no indication at this point in time that this has been a deliberately-lit fire or indeed that anyone is missing,” Mr Klemm said.
A close friend of Mr Marshall told The West Australian the realtor and separated father of three was “spiralling down” and friends and family were holding hopes he would get in touch.
Mr Marshall’s father Ross declined to comment on his son’s whereabouts or reports he attended Mammoth Cave on Wednesday morning after crashing his four-wheel drive in a distressed state. His abandoned vehicle was reportedly found in the fire zone.
As the blaze closed in on Wednesday night, Margaret River winemaker Rob Gherardi chose to stay to defend their leased Mr Barval winery, which is located on the edge of the massive blaze, only narrowly saving it from disaster.
“We are pretty stressed, and even now I’m outside the place and it looks like a nuclear bomb’s gone off down Boranup way,” he said. “We felt pretty solid here, we implemented the fire plan and everyone and the fireys have played their role.”
Mr Gherardi, who credited a change in weather conditions with saving his winery, said the National Park has not seen fuel loads controlled since 2005.
“We’re on tenterhooks,” the winemaker said. “It was literally within metres of our front (of the winery).”
Margaret River resident Sharna Keogh said she had been watching the fire unfold in horror.
“I went outside on my lunch break and saw the fire from the Main Street. It is terrifying to see it up close,” she said. “Since yesterday all you hear are choppers, planes and sirens. You pray that the firefighters and volunteers are making a difference.
“I have friends who are packing up their homes ready to evacuate. We are all scared and on edge, and just trying to help them in any way we can.”
Margaret River locals lined the roads to take in the bushfire inferno, eager to get a eye-witness update, snap a picture of the gigantic plume of smoke painting the skies shades of blue, purple and black, or just coming for a sticky beak.
Redgate woman Deslie Gillick has been returning to Redgate Road every few hours throughout the day to gauge whether or not she should evacuate and when.
“If we want to know what’s happening you’ve got to be here,” she said. “The emergency updates can only tell you so much.”
But people were warned to stay away from the fierce blaze after a quad bike rider had to be rescued on the edge of the fire ground on Wednesday night.
It is understood he was sightseeing at the fire when his quad bike rolled over. St John Ambulance attended the incident, treating it as a priority given the approaching fire front. The man was taken to Margaret River Hospital with an injured arm.
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