National

Raging WA firestorm leaves frightening scenes of devastation

Large portions of the south-west of WA were left hoping for a change of fortune – and weather – on Friday night, as savage bushfires continued to threaten homes and lives.

There were fears for the 25,000 residents of Harvey, a dairy and beef town 140 kilometres south of Perth, the next major inhabited area in the path of the fire front.

WA fires

Vision showing smoke in Harrisdale. A bushfire Watch and Act Alert has been issued near the area.

Harvey is 11 minutes' drive from Yarloop, which was all but wiped off the map on Thursday night, and by Friday afternoon locals had been advised by text message to make plans to leave.

It was not quite a compulsory evacuation but just about the nearest thing as firefighters kept up their battle in hot conditions and fresh winds, amid a background of ongoing lightning strikes.

Firefighters fight to control the fires south of Perth.
Firefighters fight to control the fires south of Perth. 

Harvey evacuee Sam Curilli, 62, said he lived through major flooding in the region in 1964 and had not been involved in a disaster like this since.

"The main thing is that we hope the house is still there when we get back," Mr Curilli said. 

Harvey is home to major agricultural enterprises, including Harvey Fresh and Harvey Beef (part-owned by billionaire Andrew Forrest), and first came into the path of the inferno on Thursday afternoon.

The fire had started on Wednesday night, 29 kilometres north-west north near the town of Waroona, sparked by a lightning strike.

The blaze rapidly escalated to emergency status for both Waroona and neighbouring Preston Beach and evacuation points in Pinjarra were flooded with hundreds of people seeking refuge.

Livestock, homes, businesses and machinery were all lost in the first few hours of the fire.

Waroona Hotel owner Dave Burt spoke of frightening scenes in the darkness.

"There were explosions late last [Wednesday] night which we assume were gas bottles," Mr Burt said.

"You know people's properties are being directly affected when you hear gas bottles going off – it's either buildings or machinery."

Major road closures caused music fans headed to the Southbound Festival in Dunsborough to take detours of more than three hours – the event was eventually cancelled – and several petrol stations were ordered to stop pumping fuel because of the threat of airborne ash.

But that was nothing compared with the fate of mill town Yarloop, where 95 properties were burnt to the ground on Thursday night.

Ironically, some Waroona residents had been sent to Yarloop for safety on Thursday before winds changed.

"I look around 360 degrees and everything is burnt to a cinder," was Yarloop Bowling Club president Ron Sackville's succinct summation of the sight he woke to on Friday morning.

Mr Sackville was among a batch of Yarloop residents who initially declined a Department of Fire and Emergency Services offer to be evacuated.

During Friday afternoon some changed their minds and were being ferried out by chopper to Leschenault and by road to Pinjarra.

Meanwhile, firefighters were busy trying to quell a blaze that had so far churned through 55,000 hectares.

Two firefighters had been injured in their endeavours and at least one fire truck destroyed.

Fire and Emergency Services commissioner Wayne Gregson​ said on Friday conditions had been "extremely difficult" for firefighters.

"The fire has been unpredictable and fanned by huge wind gusts with very little drop in temperatures," he said. 

"I must take my hat off to firefighters who did a tremendous job in difficult circumstances last night."

Temperatures were predicted to drop slightly in Harvey on Saturday – down from 35 degrees to 33 degrees – with an 80 per cent chance of rain.

But the forecast also included thunderstorms and the possibility of more lightning strikes, the very thing which triggered the whole catastrophe.