Fraser Fiasco: ‘We could’ve lost the island’

 

Fraser Island could have been completely lost if professional firefighters had not taken control of the bushfire on November 27, emergency sources say.

In an incredible admission, a senior firefighting source said control of the fire should have been handed from Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service to Queensland Fire and Emergency Service much sooner.

The source said QPWS left the situation in "a shambles" and the organisation had "a chance" to put the fire out in October, but failed.

Despite this, he said they didn't deserve the criticism they had received and more needed to be done to burn around resorts and the island's hot spots in the cooler months.

The view of Happy Valley in the aftermath of the fire 08/12/20
The view of Happy Valley in the aftermath of the fire 08/12/20

The blaze started on October 14 when an illegal campfire grew out-of-control in the far north of the island.

But it wasn't until November 27 that QFES became involved, with sources telling The Courier-Mail this week that much of the icon's ecosystems and wildlife could have been wiped out if the decision was delayed any longer.

"Before the professional firies got there it looked like it was going to keep going down and we would've potentially lost the whole island," the firefighting source said.

Currently, QPWS burns approximately 13,000 hectares of the island per year.

Authorities have advised anyone still in the Happy Valley area to leave the area immediately via the beach's southeastern exit and proceed south to the Eurong township. (PICTURES COURTESY OF QAS)
Authorities have advised anyone still in the Happy Valley area to leave the area immediately via the beach's southeastern exit and proceed south to the Eurong township. (PICTURES COURTESY OF QAS)

About 50 per cent of the island has been scorched, which equates to about 83,000 hectares.

In statements, QPWS said the decision was made to hand over management of the fire to QFES when "the threat of impact to structures and lives increased".

"QPWS responded immediately to the wildfire," a spokesman said.

"Early attempts to conduct back-burns within days after the fire began proved difficult and unsuccessful due to strong dry northerly weather conditions and the highly flammable vegetation types.

"It is important to remember that while the fire has been burning for some time, for most of that period it has been in remote and inaccessible parts of the island."

There have been two emergency declarations made, with the blaze coming within metres of Cathedrals Campground last month and Happy Valley last Sunday.

RFS volunteers on Fraser Islander performing a backburning operation near Happy Valley on Monday, December 7, 2020. Picture: Damian Huxham
RFS volunteers on Fraser Islander performing a backburning operation near Happy Valley on Monday, December 7, 2020. Picture: Damian Huxham

Incredibly, at Happy Valley, firefighters decided to drop drones in close to the fire at dusk to determine where its hottest points were. They then waterbombed it with everything they had, firefighters and residents said.

Happy Valley Community Association member, Elspeth Murray, said she had never seen anything like it.

"They back-burnt down to where the fire was coming in and it went off with a huge roar between the two fires," she said.

"Neighbour was protecting neighbour … out on the frontline. Then it rained.

"The precision of those helicopter pilots dropping water strategically - we were absolutely in awe and very grateful for that air support we had."

Ms Murray has praised retired firefighter Wintson Williams, who created the Happy Valley's bushfire survival plan after the town was described as indefensible by authorities last year, she said.

Happy Valley volunteer firefighter Winston Williams exhausted at the end of the day on Monday evening, December 7, 2020. Picture: Elspeth Murray
Happy Valley volunteer firefighter Winston Williams exhausted at the end of the day on Monday evening, December 7, 2020. Picture: Elspeth Murray

"Winston led that charge … It was Winston's plan and Winston's calling of the shots that actually controlled the outcome," Ms Murray said.

"He's owned a house here for 30 years, so he knows the island well and that knowledge has been invaluable."

This week has proven to be a critical period, with the wind changing direction, allowing firefighters to gain a stronghold on the blaze.

But The Courier-Mail was told the situation still hung precariously in the balance.

"If it cools off and you get a south-easterly, they're saying they might be able to back burn into the fire and reduce the fuel, holding it to the top half of the island," the firefighting source said.

There is potential this weekend for significant rain to fall on the Fraser Coast, the Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed.

Rain is expected each day between Saturday and Wednesday, with temperatures remaining below 30C until Tuesday.

Originally published as Fraser Fiasco: 'We could've lost the island'



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