THE FIGHT FOR KATANNING
“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.
A water bomber flies over the entrance to Katanning.
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.