The death of four people in Western Australian bushfires in late 2015 hammered home just how real the danger faced by grey nomads and others is as they travel into remote country in caravans and motorhomes … and how close many came to being among the victims.
While three overseas visitors were among those who perished in the fires near Esperance, it has emerged that the tragedy could easily have been a lot worse, with many grey nomads nearly trapped by the incredible speed with which the flames spread. It was only the decisive action taken by an off-duty fire officer that prevented some 100 vehicles driven by caravanners, motorhomers and locals from heading right into the path of the inferno.
Department of Fire and Emergency Services Goldfields Esperance superintendent Trevor Tasker was driving from Kalgoorlie to Esperance when he spotted some smoke and pulled over. “I stood on my car to see if I could see the fire but I was always blown off by the wind,” he told Radio 6PR. “I think I drove about five kilometres down the road and I could hear the fire which sounded like a rocket going off.”
Mr Tasker immediately rang Norseman police to get them to stop people heading towards the fire from Norseman, and he acted to stop the steady stream of vehicles still coming from the Esperance side.
In a scene he described as ‘complete mayhem’, Mr Tasker said that in just 30 minutes the 10-kilometre fire front had advanced some 14 kilometres. With some elderly drivers struggling to breathe because of the smoke, the fire officer then decided to lead the then huge convoy out of the area.
“We did a risk assessment of the fire outside of Norseman and decided to do a run for it and get these people to safety in Norseman,” he said. “So we lined up about 100 cars and grey nomad people in their campervans and we marched them up the highway.” Mr Tasker told people to turn off their air conditioners and close their windows, and he put a system in place to try to prevent people from going the wrong way in the confusion.
“Your whole life is flashing before your eyes because you have about 200 people you are trying to take care of,” he told Radio 6PR. “I’ve never seen a fire as devastating or fast moving as that. It came from nowhere.”
Mr Tasker is convinced that if he hadn’t been driving towards Esperance on that fateful morning, many of those in his convoy may have perished. “It was a little bit of fate,” he said. “How does that happen?”
• Our thoughts are with the families of the dead – farmer Kym Curnow who died warning others to evacuate; and young travellers, Julia Kohrs-Lichte from Germany, Anna Winther from Norway, and Briton Tom Butcher, who were all trapped in their car after trying to save a horse.