“Monday was extremely hectic on the island, especially around Happy Valley. We had north-westerly winds blowing towards the town, the fire was about a kilometre away from the township and burning through vegetation quite well,” he says.
“But firefighters and residents had done a lot of preparation in the preceding weeks and the work that went in during those prior weeks really helped save the township.”
Pomeroy says everyone was “very, very proud of the work that the locals have done … it was a big win on Monday for everybody”.
Happy Valley Rural Fire Brigade sector commander Winston Williams says the residents prepared well, which made all the difference when the flames were nearly upon the town.
“We’d done all of the preparation work with the townspeople.They had all of their lawns wet down, their gutters cleaned … and cleaned up around their houses. We had bores set up with a water supply and pumps set up with hoses,” he says.
Despite the remarkable firefighting effort, questions have swirled around the official response.
By Thursday, when newly sworn-in Queensland Environment Minister Meaghan Scanlon sat down for her first estimates meeting grilling alongside her department’s director-general, Jamie Merrick, they came again.
What date was the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service first aware of the fire? (October 14); How many parks officers are stationed on the island? (40 permanent, rotated across three bases); When were ministers first briefed? (November 13, the day after they were sworn in.)
The questioner, LNP opposition environment spokesman Sam O’Connor, was repeatedly pulled up by Townsville-based Labor MP Aaron Harper, who was chairing the session, for getting too “political” with his line of questioning.
Other party members, island business operators and environmentalists have been asking similar questions.
Why did QFES only take leadership on November 27? Why were more resources — personnel, equipment, water from a specialised large air tanker which sat on the tarmac in Bundaberg until November 17 — not used earlier to fight the fire?
Many are hoping for answers from an Inspector-General review ordered by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk this month.
The official line from the state government and responsible agencies is that initial efforts were restricted by difficult terrain (large, inaccessible areas) and the weather conditions.
Minister for Fire and Emergency Services Mark Ryan was also asked why the state’s large air tanker was on a short-term lease, which reportedly expired during the Fraser Island operation.
“The contract was deliberately drafted to be flexible so that it can be [used] at different times each year [depending on when the bushfire season comes], but also so it can be extended,” he said.
“We’ve extended the contract already because the rain hasn’t started yet. We’ve got the scope to extend it again and that’s the reason why the large air tanker is still here in Queensland.”
Peter Shooter, president of the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation, says questions need to be asked but apportioning blame is less productive, particularly at the “underfunded” QPWS management.
“With the wisdom of hindsight of course it would have been better if it were put out earlier,” he says. “We’ve had a catastrophe in a World Heritage area.”
However, he says, the remote and largely inaccessible nature of the sandy, undulating terrain — particularly in the north, where the fire allegedly grew from an illegal campfire — is important to understand.
Shooter says the capacity to fight fire in such conditions is difficult. Water bombing also only works as a means to control it at points, not extinguish it. Wind blowing from “all points of the compass” at all speeds across the bushfire’s life contributed to the complex situation, too.
In response to a question on notice from an estimates pre-hearing about the preparations taken on the island prior to the fire, Scanlon said planned burning had been done across 60,000 hectares since 2016.
A total of $400,000 had been allocated for fire break and track maintenance across a number of areas. The Rural Fire Service carried out planned burns elsewhere. QPWS was continually adapting its work to the shifting fire landscapes and timelines, exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, she added.
Chief Superintendent Gill said on Friday there were no “active” fires on the island but there were a few small pockets and hotspots in mostly inaccessible areas.
“They pose no issues to any person or property … we will wait until they reach an area that ground crews can get to and extinguish, or until sufficient rain extinguishes it,” he said.
“We are still mapping the fire from the air and if anything flares up then we will hit it with our water-bombing aircraft. But there is no risk at this time, the weather conditions are favourable.
“Our crews are still on the island putting out any fire as they get to it, but it has allowed QPWS to start working on clearing fallen trees from the tracks.
“The Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation has been freed up to check for any damage to their culturally significant sites and for any potential for land slips.”
Matt Dennien is a reporter with Brisbane Times.
Toby Crockford is a breaking news reporter at the Brisbane Times