Coroner's Court of Western Australia

Inquest into the Deaths of Kym Brett CURNOW, Thomas Leslie BUTCHER, Julie KOHRS-LICHTE and Anna Sushchova WINTHER

Inquest into the Deaths of Kym Brett CURNOW, Thomas Leslie BUTCHER, Julie KOHRS-LICHTE and Anna Sushchova WINTHER

Delivered on : 22 November 2019

Delivered at : Perth

Finding of : Coroner Linton

Recommendations : Yes

Recommendation 1

I recommend that DFES immediately take steps to create and fill the additional positions of a District Officer, Area Officer (Rural Competencies) and Bushfire Risk Management Officer to supplement the current Area Officer in Esperance. If these changes requires additional funding, I recommend that the Honourable Minister for Emergency Services give priority to considering how funding can be allocated for these additional positions and then arranging for that funding to be made available.

Recommendation 2

I recommend that DFES commence planning and fund allocation for a Career Fire and Rescue Service Station to service the Esperance – Ravensthorpe Community all year round, and to respond quickly to provide support to the local volunteer Bush Fire Brigades in the event of a bushfire. If that change requires additional funding, I recommend that the Honourable Minister of Emergency Services give priority to considering how funding can be allocated for the creation and staffing of such a station and then arranging for that funding to be made available.

Recommendation 3

I recommend that DFES adopt a policy by which: (i) any authorisation under s 13 which is initiated verbally be made in writing (as required by the Act) as soon as practicable; (ii) a copy of the written authorisation be given to the local government or DPaW as soon as practicable; and (iii) the fact of any authorisation, once completed, be (where possible) communicated to those in the ICV and on the fire ground as soon as practicable.

Recommendation 4

I recommend that the State Government give consideration to giving a higher drafting priority to the Consolidated Emergency Services Act.

Recommendation 5

I recommend that DFES fund an additional two light tanker appliances and one heavy duty appliance to be used by the Esperance volunteer Bushfire Brigades, at their discretion. The appliances should be provided on a permanent basis, as the Brigades need to be able to learn how to use the appliances and train on them, and the fire seasons are becoming extended and unpredictable.

Recommendation 6

I recommend that the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions allocate funding to the Esperance District Regional Office to purchase an item of earth moving equipment suitable for fire mitigation works, as well as for use during a fire, together with 1.0 FTE position for an operator of the machinery, on a permanent basis. If there is insufficient funding within the Department, I recommend the Honourable Minister for Environment support an increase of funding for the Department to allow this recommendation to be fulfilled.

Recommendation 7

I recommend that the South-East Fire Working Group’s final plan for a long-term fire mitigation strategy be fully supported and funded by DFES and the State Government. I suggest that at a minimum, the funding should cover a period of ten years to allow for the creation of firebreaks and strategic fire exit tracks on the vast area of UCL in the Esperance region, with a view to then formalising ongoing funding for maintenance after that time on a long-term basis.

Recommendation 8

I also recommend that consideration be given to reviewing the Memorandum of Understanding between DPaW and the Shire and, as part of that process, the MOU should include a more streamlined procedure to ensure that the best balance can be met between ensuring that cognisance is taken of rare flora and fauna and areas of cultural significance on the interface with farms and UCL, but which permits farmers to undertake mitigation works expeditiously to ensure fire risk is reduced on the borders.

Recommendation 9

I recommend that the WA Government, via DFES or whatever is the relevant agency, undertake an assessment of established airstrips in the north-western quadrant of the Esperance Shire, with a view to identifying airstrips that can be enhanced to permit operation by water bombers. Once a suitable site has been identified, priority should then be given to funding the necessary upgrades to make the airstrip(s) suitable for that purpose.

Recommendation 10

I recommend that the Honourable Minister for Emergency Services and/or the Honourable Minister for Environment, depending upon whose portfolio water bombers actually falls, give priority to funding (at an estimated cost of approximately $800,000) a Wheatbelt based aerial fire suppression response for the full fire season commencing in the Wheatbelt and concluding in Esperance.

Recommendation 11

I recommend that DFES consider updating the official bushfire season in the Esperance region to reflect the reality of the impact of climate change and other factors that have altered the start and duration of the fire season.

Recommendation 12

I recommend that the State Government fund the installation of at least one new repeater tower in the north-western sector of the Esperance region to enhance communications during an emergency.

Orders/Rules : N/A

Suppression Order : N/A

Summary : At the time of their deaths the four deceased were attempting to escape a bush fire which was burning in the Cascade area at Esperance. The four deceased were all in vehicles which were travelling on Griggs Road in Scaddan when the fire storm passed through.

The fire started on 15 November 2015 in unallocated crown land, which was concluded to have been ignited by a lightning strike and would burn until 26 November 2015.

During the afternoon of 17 November 2015 one of the fires had nearly reached the Karingal farming property, located on Griggs Road in Scaddan, The owners and workers on the farm prepared to defend the property. One of the workers decided to leave in order to try to take a horse to safety in Esperance. Shortly before he left two other farm workers decided to go with him. The workers who left the farm were Tom Butcher, Julia Kohrs-Lichte and Anna Winther, all of whom were visitors to Australia. A local farmer and volunteer firefighter, Kym Curnow, was also at Karingal. Kym Curnow was a fire scout that afternoon and had been speaking to farmers in the area and advising them to evacuate. His last stop was Karingal.

Two vehicles, one contained tom Butcher, Julia Kohrs-Lichte and Anna Winther, and one containing Kym Curnow, left the farm. Both turned left and headed east. They drove along Griggs Road in the direction of the Coolgardie-Esperance Highway. It is likely they were unaware the route took them directly into the path of the approaching fire front, which was raging out of control despite the efforts of local volunteer firefighters. When the fire front passed through both drivers tried to escape into farmland but crashed into trees. It is unclear whether the deceased died from injuries in the crashes or from the effects of the fire.

The Coroner found the deaths arose by way of accident.

The Coroner made 12 recommendations arising from the inquest.

Catch Words : Bushfires : Fire Suppression : Training and Communication : Controlling Agencies for Fires : Fire Mitigation and Resources : Water Bombers : Aerial Support : Accident.

Last updated: 3-Mar-2021

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