By HARRY CLARKE
DRESSED in clothes given to him by St Vincents in Tara, and standing bewildered in the black and mangled tin shed home he’d built six months ago, Wieambilla resident Colin Chisnall has lost “everything”.
There’s $54 in his bank account, he says, and none of his possessions that were reduced to ash last week were insured.
“I can’t afford insurance,” Colin tells the Caller, palms raised in the air.
Colin and his parter, Dee, were forced to flee to a Tara evacuation centre when intense bushfire ripped through their West Valley Road property on October 23.
They’ve since been put up in a motel by the Western Downs Regional Council, as part of its immediate term support for the bushfire victims.
But they can’t stay in the accommodation for long.
“Next Wednesday, when we’re finished at the motel, I’m living in a tent right here next to that power pole,” he says, waving down the driveway.
“No water, no toilet, no nothing”.
There are many people from Wieambilla, a small bushland community north of Tara, who are in a similar position.
The final count of homes destroyed by fire over the past fortnight is 57.
Close to 100 more structures – sheds, caravans and the like – were lost.
More than 310 people had to stay in emergency evacuation centres in Tara and the surrounding Western Downs towns of Miles, Chinchilla and Dalby.
The last 50-odd displaced residents returned to their homes Thursday to find out whether anything was still standing, or whether they were among the lucky ones whose homes firefighters managed to protect during the height of the inferno.
“There aren’t many fire breaks out there and there’s minimal preparation around properties, so they’re really hard conditions for fire fighting,” says Dale Wheeler, the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service (QFES) Lieutenant who heads up Chinchilla Fire Station.
“We can’t have a fire truck on the doorstep of every property out there. There are just too many, and we don’t have the resources available to deal with the size and complexity of the fire.
“If we’re able to get to a property in time to save it, then we do everything we can do to so. Unfortunately sometimes we have to say ‘we can’t save that property’ and we move on to the next one.”
Wheeler, a firefighter of 14 years, said the past fortnight had brought “probably the scariest” fire conditions he’d ever seen.
“The fire gets up, goes into the tree tops, jumps over when the wind changes direction,” he said.
“The fire is so intense it actually creates its own weather. It started to make its own wind and storms. It was quite scary to be a part of, especially when you’re out in the middle of it all.
“There was always that uncertainty about what it was going to do next and where the weather was going to take it. Just a slight wind change can affect the entire fire ground.”
More than 28,000 hectares of land was scorched throughout Wieambilla, which many Western Downs locals believed had been like a tinderbox waiting to ignite.
It’s dense scrub country with heavy fuel loads. Local fire crews had been frequenting the area well before this month’s warnings of catastrophic fire conditions.
Two men have been in custody since August charged with arson over fires which swept through the area in January and February, and there’s suspicion among Wieambilla locals that the recent fire was also deliberately lit.
Dalby Detective Inspector Garry Watts told the Caller police and QFES had commenced routine investigations but said so far no evidence of arson had been found.
Western Downs mayor Paul McVeigh said the council had been as prepared as possible for the seemingly inevitable disaster, and that the response to calls for support from state and federal governments had been pleasingly swift.
“Warnings were out there and we were all expecting a dangerous fire situation coming to this season. It’s come to us early unfortunately, and had a massive impact,” he said.
“Unfortunately we’ve had a bit of practice with fire incidents over the last 12 months, getting the Local Disaster Management Group together and understanding what our roles were, and getting capacity to be able to bring QFES, police, ambulance, and rural fire brigades to the area.”
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McVeigh said Federal Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt and Queensland Housing Minister Meaghan Scanlon had this week visited the region and promised to deliver 30 dongas to Tara to accommodate affected residents in the short term.
He said another 30 demountable homes would be set up at the Tara caravan park to assist residents “for some longer term”.
“As you’ll appreciate there are a lot of quite emotional people,” he said.
“The unknown was the main issue. We’re weren’t able to go straight in to assess the damage because of the extreme heat of the fire.
“We’re doing everything in our power to develop immediate housing relief for those most highly impacted.”