Wheat and sheep farmers around Esperance are angry. Angry at the loss of four young lives. Angry at the savage destruction of their crops and livestock. But they reserve a special type of fury for bureaucrats in Perth, 700km away, who tell them what they can and can't do to prevent bushfires such as this week's raging inferno that has caused utter heartache and devastation in their community on Western Australia's south coast.
Local farmer and volunteer firefighter Dave Vandenberghe, whose friend Kym "Freddy" Curnow died in the fire, said "red tape" and environmental laws had prevented him and others from doing anything to stop or contain the blaze before it grew out of control.
The fire started on crown land as a result of lightning strikes last Sunday, but it took until Tuesday afternoon for it to escalate into a firestorm, fuelled by 40C temperatures and extreme winds.
"Until it gets on to our farmland there's nothing we can do, so we were sitting on our hands," Mr Vandenberghe said. "Esperance is surrounded by millions of hectares of mallee scrub; it's crown land that hadn't been burnt out for 20-odd years. You're not allowed to go there in case you run over an ant's nest. The Department of Environment is worried about parrots' nests; well I can tell you there are no parrots left there anymore. When the fire hit we were left to the mercy of Mother Nature without a single government department here to help us."
Farmers are also angry that the state government has consistently refused their requests to buy the heavy-duty firefighting vehicles that are routinely taken back to Perth and pulled apart when they reach their use-by date. Local Liberal MP Graeme Jacobs said if the units were allowed to remain, farmers would be better equipped to contain fires.
"It is wasteful and expensive," said Mr Jacobs, who has tried to convince his Liberal colleagues in the Barnett government to change the policy. "These vehicles are old in age but they are still in very good condition because they have been very well maintained and they haven't done a lot of mileage."
Grain and livestock farmer Neville Shepherd, who has a 1600ha property 68km east of Esperance, said his efforts to help neighbours this week were stalled by a lack of firefighting trucks. The 61-year-old volunteer firefighter said the Department of Fire and Emergency Services had refused his request to buy a fire truck earlier this year.
"The argument was, they said, farmers in the past had been buying them too cheaply," Mr Shepherd said. "That's why they've been sending them to Perth to go to auction. What annoys me about all this is the fact that we have gladly volunteered and fought fires on their behalf for years, so why shouldn't we get them a bit cheaper. We don't charge them an hourly rate to go and fight fires. People now have spent days and days at the fires and it's all for free."
Mr Shepherd said farmers would be better prepared to protect live and homes in a bushfire emergency if they had their own vehicles, rather than anticipating a response by government agencies. There are also concerns in Esperance about the adequacy of the fire warnings in place before the tragedy. Emma Ridgway, an escort driver for an earthmoving business, said authorities did not provide farmers with adequate warning about how much time they had to flee their properties or the potential intensity of the bushfires.
"No one is really happy about the response and warning time," she said. "People were not warned about how severe it was going to get. Some of our men on the ground who were fighting the fires were told to go into positions where they'd been advised it was safe for them to go in and then when they've gotten in, they've found out it was not safe."
Premier Colin Barnett yesterday warned against blaming anyone for the disaster before a full review could be undertaken.
"This was a fire that just simply got out of control," he said. "There was really nothing that could be done to a fire of that size travelling at 70kmh across wheat fields. I don't think it's a time to criticise (but) like any fire, things will be learnt from it"