At least five homes have been lost in Western Australia and 60,000 hectares razed in one of the most challenging bushfire periods in recent memory, and one the state’s fire and emergency services commissioner has linked to climate change.
About 1000 firefighters are managing four blazes which reached an emergency risk level over the weekend in southern parts of the state.
Emergency warnings for residents in the eastern Wheatbelt and south-west town of Bridgetown were downgraded on Monday to watch and act, however authorities warned there was still a possible threat to lives and homes.
WA’s Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) said one home had been lost in Bridgetown, along with sheds, vehicles, fences and equipment.
A further four homes were earlier confirmed as having been lost near Denmark on the south coast.
“I don’t recall a time where we’ve had four level three bushfires occurring at the same time as well as dealing with a state of emergency around a pandemic,” DFES commissioner Darren Klemm said.
“So it’s particularly challenging from a resourcing point of view.”
The Shackleton fire in the eastern Wheatbelt has burned through about 40,000 hectares and at one point spanned 35km long.
Conditions have eased since Sunday, when wind gusts of up 85km/h prevented firefighters from operating large air tankers, but the fire is still not contained.
With Perth having sweltered through its hottest January on record and the Pilbara town of Onslow surpassing 50C to equal the nation’s highest temperature, Klemm said there was no doubt climate change was intensifying bushfire conditions.
He said the Denmark fire, which is now contained, had doubled in size during Friday night, a highly unusual occurrence given the south coast’s cooler climate.
“We’re seeing fires provide us with particularly difficult circumstances where they normally wouldn’t have,” he said.
“That activity of fire at night is becoming more prevalent and equally the fires are becoming more intense.
“People need to understand how challenging that is for the crews on the ground.”
A damage assessment for the Bridgetown fire was completed on Monday but authorities were yet to assess the impact of the Shackleton blaze.
Another fire near the Wheatbelt town of Narrogin which also reached emergency level has also been downgraded to watch and act.
Klemm said there were reports of a “pretty significant impact” to large numbers of cattle as well as a piggery east of Narrogin.
Residents in the small railway town of Hester, near Bridgetown, were evacuated over the weekend due to toxic dust and ash being blown by the wind.
Authorities are looking at treatment measures and are yet to determine when residents will be able to return.
Police have deemed the Denmark bushfire to be non-suspicious but arson squad detectives are looking at the Bridgetown blaze. The Wheatbelt fires are yet to be investigated.
Klemm said the DFES is looking into reports two firefighters had sustained minor burns, as well as an accident involving two vehicles.
Western Power on Monday said it was working to restore power to about 13,800 customers across the network, most of whom were in the metropolitan region.
About 600 homes in Bridgetown and 400 in Denmark remain without power.