Day three of the Coronial Inquest into the 2015 Esperance Bushfire fatalities would pick at the statements given by DFES officials and the Shire CEO Matthew Scott from the day the Cascades fire jumped containment lines and ravished farmland, November 17.
DFES Area Officer Gavin Warnes had worked for the service in Esperance for almost twenty years, and told the court his timeline of the events on the days leading up to November 17. The days prior, at the request of Captain Will Carmody, Warnes had asked his superiors for extra sources through aerial support, heavy machinery and man power, but that was constantly denied. Later, the court would hear from DFES District Officer Kevin Parsons, who passed those requests onto DFES state operations and the ‘air desk’ but put simply, resources were too stretched to be sent directly to Esperance.
Mr. Warnes found himself in unenviable circumstances of combatting two fires. While the fire at Lake Mends steadily built on the days leading up to November 17, the DFES Area officer was more concerned about a fire burning closer to town near Merivale, saying “Merivale fire was a priority” and it was a “greater risk to life than Lake Mends.”
Despite his belief that the fire to the east of Esperance was needed more attention, the team based in town still watched the fire burning to the north carefully, with Incident Control Officer Tom Brown thinking the Lake Mends fire was a greater risk. Gavin Warnes, however, says their ‘robust’ conversation about the tension between the two fires was helpful, “(Tom Brown’s) difference of opinion with mine was quite healthy… a healthy disagreement to has as it levelled out the fires”.
While Shire CEO Matthew Scott will maintain that he was under the impression the responsibility for the Cascades fire had changed hands to DFES earlier, Mr. Warnes told the court that he official took charge after midday as the Incident Controller. Both fires sat at level 1 incidents but regardless of the category the action plan to combat the fires would have been the same.
As the DFES Area Officer got updates of the fire on November 17, he was left in “disbelief” with how quick it spread. He emphasised the difficulty planning the fight against the blazes at a location in town.
“I was stuck inside an office. I can’t see the smoke… all I can go off is these reports”.
Later that afternoon Mr. Warnes heard the news of the fatalities. In court he teared up as he recalled the moment.
Catch up with day two of the inquest, and the testimony from Captain Will Carmody below
“Totally and utterly flattened me at that point… 27 years in the service, almost 20 years in Esperance, gave up blood, sweat and tears protecting the community.”
He shut himself from the news. Initial unconfirmed reports had indicated seven deaths and for weeks after the vent this is the total number of lives Mr. Warnes thought had been lost to the fire.
Reflecting on the event Mr. Warnes said, “few little things we could have changes, but things would have ended the same.”
He left the court room with one final statement.
“I would like to pass my condolences on to those who were affected by the fire, to the families who lost their properties… and my sincere condolences to those that lost loved ones on the day.”
Day four of the inquest tomorrow will see the local farmers, including the Campbells, take to the stand to take questions.