Sunday, May 26, 2024

Walpole inferno: Arsonist hunt continues

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Patricia Gill, Denmark Bulletin

An arsonist is believed to have started a bushfire last Wednesday night igniting up to 13,700ha of the Walpole/Nornalup National Park.

The arsonist is believed to have ignited seven fires along Middle Road all of which but one joined up to raze 70 per cent of the park and a small amount of agricultural land.

Walpole fire
The blaze north-east of Walpole. Photo: DBCA.

Officer in charge at Walpole Police Station, Sergeant Steve Page, said though the matter had been handed over to Albany detectives and the Arson Squad information was required from the public.

If anyone knew anything, they should contact Crime Stoppers immediately on 0800 333 000.

“Any little bit of information – it’s like a jigsaw – we want to catch whoever has done this,” Sgt Page said.

“We’re trying to put a jigsaw together and anyone might have that corner piece we’re wanting.”

A farmer in the area had noticed a glow late on Wednesday, April 24 and notified other farmers before it was realised a string of fires had been lit.

The fires were lit on Middle Road with an easterly wind pushing the blazes into the national park.

By Saturday, the fire was under control, burning within containment lines, though earlier that day creating a vast plume of smoke.

That morning the road was barely visible to drivers on parts of South Coast Highway, particularly near Albany.

There was no loss of infrastructure with the Tree Top Walk in the Valley of Giants re-opening on Sunday, along with the Bibbulmun Track.

Parts of the Munda Biddi Trail in the area remain closed but no huts have been burnt.

On Saturday afternoon there were 85 fire fighters on the ground, 40 trucks and machines and aerial resources – water bombers etc. – on hand.

Forthcoming light rain was signalled which would assist in containment efforts.

Incident controller, Allison Donovan from the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, commended the effort of all individuals, brigades, community groups, businesses and Government services for the round-the-clock effort.

“Having lived in Walpole, I know how amazing this community is,” she said. “It is much appreciated.”

During the meeting, Conservation Council WA executive director Jess Beckerling asked what particular ecological values DBCA was concerned about as a result of the fire.

Ms Donovan said most of the peat swamps in the northern part of the national park had been burnt.

These had older than six-year fuel loads.

Ms Donovan had been working with a colleague, Janine Liddelow, to put together an action plan for the peat systems where there were sunset frogs.

These only occur east and north-east of Walpole.

Ms Donovan said good historic data was available and the action plan would be formulated in coming days.

Ms Beckerling said she had ‘enormous respect’ for Ms Donovan and the fire fighting crews which had been working extremely hard over the past days.

However, she had heard that the water bombers had not arrived until later than they could have.

“You often see – understandably so – far more resources, in general, and aerial support when private property is going to be affected,” Ms Beckerling said.

“The ecological values (of peatlands) are so significant.

“Peat should never be burnt. “It’s not just the association of sunset frogs and pitcher plants – those are restricted species – it’s also how much carbon they (the peat systems) are holding in the soils.

“Once they are disturbed in many different ways – pigs, bull dozers, fire – the makeup of the soil changes and it becomes very difficult for them to become carbon forming, carbon storing systems again.

“The density of carbon in those soils is extraordinary, so when they are burnt they are releasing a phenomenal volume of greenhouse gas emissions.

“It takes centuries, almost millennia, for it to be restored.

“It’s a real worry from a climate as well as a biodiversity perspective.”

There are rewards of up to $25,000 for information that leads to the identification and conviction of an arsonist in relation to the fire.

Denmark Bulletin 2 May 2024

This article appeared in the Denmark Bulletin, 2 May 2024.

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