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Coastal groups fear bushfire scenario worse than 2011 Margaret River bushfires

Warren HatelyAugusta Margaret River Times
MARGARET RIVER, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 25:  Properties are damaged on Orchard Ramble following a bush fire on November 25, 2011 in Margaret River, Australia. 4000 hectares of forest and over 30 properties have been destroyed as bush fires continue to burn around Western Australia. Residents from the town of Prevelly fled to the beach for safety and then had to evacuate on jet ski as the bush fires reached the sands. Two additional fires are burning north of the town of Denmark and fire crews are hoping light rains expected today will help with them distinguish the blazes.  (Photo by Will Russell - Pool/Getty Images)
Camera IconMARGARET RIVER, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 25: Properties are damaged on Orchard Ramble following a bush fire on November 25, 2011 in Margaret River, Australia. 4000 hectares of forest and over 30 properties have been destroyed as bush fires continue to burn around Western Australia. Residents from the town of Prevelly fled to the beach for safety and then had to evacuate on jet ski as the bush fires reached the sands. Two additional fires are burning north of the town of Denmark and fire crews are hoping light rains expected today will help with them distinguish the blazes. (Photo by Will Russell - Pool/Getty Images) Credit: Will Russell/Getty Images

Coastal groups have expressed alarm at the findings of a recent Wallcliffe Fire Services Brigade simulation that showed the lessons of the 2011 bushfires haven’t been learnt — and say the coast is facing greater danger now than when 50 properties were destroyed 12 years ago.

Central to those concerns was the region’s rampant population growth, an increase in visitors from Perth — and the proposed resort and associated village development at Gnarabup.

While Wallcliffe was not allowed to comment on the training exercise beyond the specifics, the post included pleas for residents to take preparations very seriously.

The warnings come as huge areas of the South West were placed on high alert for bushfires this week after an updated Bureau of Meteorology forecast for the summer.

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Lobby group Bushfire Front had already warned about the dire risks faced by the region this bushfire season, fearing a repeat of the 2011 disaster.

Spokesperson John Clarke told the Times the Wallcliffe simulation showed mitigation works and preparedness were key to averting tragedy.

“I do worry on behalf of people who have chosen to live in the coastal heath vegetation in the Capes region,” the retired firefighter said.

“When it’s stinking hot, and there’s a howling wind blowing, and it’s the middle of January, and a fire is raging through thick and long unburnt bush and scrub, all the trucks and machines and career firefighters and volunteers and aircraft in the country won’t be able to do much except get out of harm’s way.

“And great big, expensive airplanes with red-dyed water, which TV cameras love, are pretty much useless, especially when they can’t even get off the ground when the wind is strong.”

Family contacts of local volunteers also questioned if the exercise could have seen the mock fire contained faster if the Department of Fire and Emergency Services had not closed down the brigade’s one-truck Prevelly fire shed.

DFES declined to comment on what the exercise showed in terms of fire danger for the coast other than to point to previous comments urging preparedness.

However, Preserve Gnarabup highlighted the DFES submission on the proposed Gnarabup resort which recommended against the project due to unacceptable bushfire risks and lack of a second access route to Gnarabup.

“If further development is allowed at Gnarabup, without a DFES-approved plan in place, it will put residents and volunteer first responders at a greatly increased risk of injury and death,” spokesperson Beth Carlessi said.

“The shire has recently recognised the unsuitability of extreme fire-danger areas for short-term accommodation.

“Gnarabup is suitable for only the lowest scale, safest type of development, or none at all.”

While the Shire of Augusta-Margaret River was not involved in the Wallcliffe exercise, community emergency services manager Adam Jasper said residents living anywhere in the shire needed to prepare a bushfire plan and their properties in case of emergency.

Wallcliffe’s warning included the sobering comment that “bushfire is inevitable”.

“Fully appreciate the reality of living in the bush in the Wallcliffe district,” the brigade said. “It will happen.”

Preserve Gnarabup was concerned the resort plans could add a further 1000 people to the coast during summer, taxing resources and potentially trapping residents in a bushfire without an adequate means of escape.

The developer’s most recent plans included a fire bunker for guests to shelter in place, but the protest group said that would not help people in the associated village development.

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