Two years on, Preston Beach fire chief reflects on horror of Yarloop bushfire

Headshot of Liam Croy
Liam CroyThe West Australian
VideoDistrict Officer Clint Kuchel was the firefighter in charge at the Yarloop fires.

As the remains of Yarloop burned to the south-east, dozens of people took refuge near the water at Preston Beach.

Some locals and tourists had been evacuated by boat but others would have to spend the night on the sand.

Most of Yarloop had been destroyed by then and two residents were dead, though the scale of the tragedy was not yet known.

With the fire bearing down on Harvey and Cookernup, there had been no time to count the cost.

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That was two years ago to the day — one of the darkest days in the State’s history.

Steve Thomas’ personal battle with the Waroona-Yarloop bushfire had started two days earlier on the night of Wednesday, January 6, 2016.

He was fighting the fire near Waroona when he was diverted to an emergency at Lake Navarino, where about eight campers were stranded in dense forest.

“We were completely surrounded by flames for about an hour and a half,” Mr Thomas said. “We just had to to try to keep everyone in the middle.”

January 7, 2016. Boats used to evacuate holiday makers from Preston Beach.
Camera IconJanuary 7, 2016. Boats used to evacuate holiday makers from Preston Beach. Credit: Footprints Preston Beach Resort / Facebook

Mr Thomas is the captain of the Preston Beach volunteer bushfire brigade.

The volunteers kept those campers safe and then moved on to the next emergency.

The days that followed were a test of physical and mental endurance, as they were forced back from Waroona to their home town of Preston Beach.

“At Preston Beach it came through on all three sides,” Mr Thomas said.

“The only place that wasn’t burning was the Indian Ocean.”

Volunteer firefighter Steve Thomas at Preston Beach.
Camera IconVolunteer firefighter Steve Thomas at Preston Beach. Credit: Picture: Steve Butler

Mr Thomas hosted a day of reflection yesterday at the Preston Beach fire station to coincide with the two-year anniversary.

He promoted the concept of a “five-minute chat” in which residents discussed their preparedness and plan of action if fire threatened homes again.

“The five-minute chat is an idea where the family sits around the table and decides what their trigger points are as to whether they’re going to stay and defend or evacuate,” Mr Thomas said.

“They discuss how they’re going to evacuate, how they’re going to defend and what their back-up plan is if things don’t work out as they anticipate.”

As others have said since the Waroona-Yarloop disaster, preparation and planning was only worth so much in the face of such a powerful force of nature.

At its peak, the bushfire created its own weather system and had a perimeter of 400km.

It burned through 71,000ha and 180 buildings, including 162 homes.

Mr Thomas stood shoulder to shoulder with the Yarloop and Cookernup volunteers at an emotion-charged Anzac Day dawn service in Yarloop three months later.

“As fireys we take it extremely hard if we lose a shed, let alone a house or, God forbid, a life,” Mr Thomas said.

“It caught all of us off guard because no one had ever seen anything like it.

“It seemed to take up the whole horizon.

“It was indescribable.”

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