Great Southern Herald - - Front Page - Liam Croy

“It looked at one stage like we were go­ing to lose that edge of town, but you’d come out of the smoke and there would be an­other three units go­ing at it.” These were the words of Katan­ning Vol­un­teer Fire and Res­cue Ser­vice Cap­tain Trevor Wat­son on Sun­day, as he stood near the one home that was de­stroyed the pre­vi­ous day. A cruel wind change had put the his­toric town of Katan­ning un­der threat — but as res­i­dents re­ceived a mass text mes­sage urg­ing them to evac­u­ate, a huge team of fire­fight­ers re­fused to yield ground.

Dot­ted along Great South­ern High­way, the peo­ple of Katan­ning were thank­ing their lucky stars as they watched a bush­fire roar past the west­ern edge of the town on Satur­day.

The fire front was barely 100m in front of them, but to those who had stayed back to watch it un­fold, it seemed the town­site had dodged a bul­let. Then the wind changed.

“It was pretty chaotic and hard to see any­thing,” Katan­ning Vol­un­teer Fire and Res­cue Ser­vice capt. Trevor Wat­son said on Sun­day.

At that point late on Satur­day after­noon, it be­came clear that his­toric Katan­ning — the heart of the Great South­ern — was at risk.

The bush­fire that had burnt through thou­sands of hectares since it started on Fri­day morn­ing was bear­ing down on the town.

Re­lief turned to alarm as some res­i­dents evac­u­ated and oth­ers stayed to de­fend their homes.

The wind change trig­gered an au­to­mated text mes­sage which read: “Bush­fire EMER­GENCY WARN­ING from DFES for Katan­ning. If the way is clear, leave now. NORTH EAST di­rec­tion.”

The Kobeelya Con­fer­ence Cen­tre on Brownie Street be­came an evac­u­a­tion cen­tre.

One woman at Kobeelya said her hus­band and chil­dren were trapped in­side their home.

The Maungs, one of many Korean fam­i­lies who came to Katan­ning be­cause of a job open­ing at WAMMCO, had fled their home af­ter re­ceiv­ing the text mes­sage.

“There was smoke in­side the house,” Hsar Hset Maung said.

Katan­ning-raised Jeff Wal­lace was back for Kaos in the Coun­try, a big speed­way event which he had helped or­gan­ise. With 90 en­trants, in­clud­ing one from as far afield as Can­berra, the event was called off. The town's an­nual Con­cert in the Park was also can­celled.

Mr Wal­lace said some en­trants had “kicked up a bit” af­ter the an­nounce­ment on Satur­day morn­ing, but DFES’ pre­dic­tions were spot on.

“If they see what the town looks like now, I reckon they’ll un­der­stand,” he said.

Sit­ting in his car at the evac­u­a­tion cen­tre, Mr Wal­lace had more press­ing con­cerns.

His fam­ily home on Dum­b­leyung Road was in the line of fire on the north­ern edge of town. His par­ents were on their way back from Man­durah af­ter hear­ing the news.

“It was in the red-alert zone so we had to evac­u­ate . . . It is wor­ry­ing look­ing at this now,” he said on Satur­day.

As 300 peo­ple gath­ered at the evac­u­a­tion cen­tre, the winds that were gust­ing above 60km/h started blow­ing smoke and ash through the town­site.

Plumes of smoke were smoth­er­ing the sun, cast­ing an or­ange glow over the streets below.

In the streets, there was the stunned si­lence of res­i­dents as large sec­tions of the town were evac­u­ated as well as the dogged de­ter­mi­na­tion of fire­fight­ers who were bust­ing their guts to de­fend it.

But in the Shire of Katan­ning ad­min­is­tra­tion build­ing, the at­mos­phere was one of calm co-or­di­na­tion.

It had to be.

“Our whole of­fice has been taken over. We’ve had ev­ery­one here,” Shire pres­i­dent Liz Guidera said on Mon­day.

“In this con­trol room, you don’t see panic. Peo­ple are calm, they know what they have to do and they get on with it.”

While hun­dreds of fire­fight­ers pro­vided the grunt on the ground, the suc­cess­ful de­fence of the town was also in large part due to the co­or­di­na­tion be­hind the scenes.

Cr Guidera acted as a con­duit be­tween the emer­gency ser­vices con­trollers and res­i­dents, hold­ing a com­mu­nity brief­ing at the evac­u­a­tion cen­tre when the town was un­der threat.

She saw the sheer num­ber of peo­ple and the ef­fort that went into the op­er­a­tion.

The weather pre­dic­tions from DFES were cru­cial and ac­cu­rate, lo­cal shires pro­vided the graders that helped pro­tect ma­jor as­sets such as WAMMCO, the wa­ter bombers did a lot of the heavy lift­ing as they at­tacked the main fire front, and the fire­fight­ers pro­vided the grunt on the ground.

DFES es­ca­lated the fire to a level three in­ci­dent, open­ing up a range of re­sources and giv­ing WA’s new air tanker one of its first work­outs.

There were also the vol­un­teers, such as Gnowangeru­p’s Rapid Re­lief Team, who helped keep the fire­fight­ers go­ing.

When the dust had started to set­tle on Sun­day, only one home had been lost.

Cr Guidera said the fam­ily who lived there had been re­homed by Land­mark.

“In some ways it’s a bit of a mir­a­cle that we didn’t lose more, but re­ally it was just be­cause of the mam­moth ef­forts of so many peo­ple,” she said.

Mr Wat­son, a long-time ser­vant with Katan­ning VFRS, said it was the big­gest fire to hit Katan­ning in re­cent mem­ory. “In my 30 years, I’ve never seen any­thing like this — and I’d be quite happy not to,” he said on Sun­day.

He paid trib­ute to the farm­ers who had ar­rived in their dozens from across the Great South­ern, tak­ing small wa­ter tanker units from house to house putting out spot fires.

“Those guys are the guys that have been out in the mid­dle of it the whole time,” he said. “Ev­ery­where you turned there were guys do­ing what they needed to do. They were awe­some.”

With the worst over, Mr Wat­son was able to re­flect on how close his town had come to calamity.

“It looked at one stage like we were go­ing to lose that edge of town, but you’d come out of the smoke and there would be an­other three units go­ing at it,” he said.

A DFES as­sess­ment on Mon­day es­ti­mated fire­fight­ers had saved more than 200 build­ings, in­clud­ing 43 homes.

Ukraine-born Mike Roznoczny, a Katan­ning res­i­dent of 42 years, said he was blown away by the or­gan­i­sa­tion and ef­forts of the fire­fight­ers.

“There’s a part of the Aus­tralian psy­che that says you’ve got to get a job done and it doesn’t mat­ter what rank you are — you take over when you need to,” he said.

“When these things hap­pen you see the best of the Aus­tralian spirit — and these guys have cer­tainly shown that.”

Ms Guidera said a vol­un­teer reg­is­ter would be set up for peo­ple to help in the wake of the fire. It would be run by the Katan­ning Hub Com­mu­nity Re­source Cen­tre

“The com­mu­nity has showed in­cred­i­ble spirit but we need to con­tinue to look af­ter each other," she said.

Pic­ture: Liam Croy

A wa­ter bomber flies over the en­trance to Katan­ning.

Pic­tures: Liam Croy

A vol­un­teer fire­fighter tap­ing off a road as the fire reached the town.

Katan­ning VFRS' Blake An­der­son, Da­mon Pow­ell, Aron Bur­nett, Fin Leach and Trevor Wat­son.

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