Asbestos Fears Linger After Massive Australian Brush Fire

Firefighters extinguishing brush fire

Nearly five months after a catastrophic brush fire devastated the historic timber town of Yarloop in Western Australia, residents may now be at risk of asbestos exposure.

The blaze damaged much of the asbestos previously hidden inside the town’s renovated structures, and that could have long-lasting effects on Yarloop. Containing the asbestos may impede cleanup efforts, and it’s unclear how much residents were exposed to the carcinogen known to cause deadly mesothelioma.

However, Dr. Andy Robertson, director of disaster management at the WA Department of Health, said asbestos levels in Yarloop shouldn’t be high.

“We haven’t done any air testing, but we anticipate that the levels of asbestos particulate, asbestos material in the air would be low,” Robertson told ABC News. “Once the recovery process gets underway, there will be more dust created, and there will be more risk.”

Damaged Asbestos Found in Scorched Homes, Businesses

Firefighters battled the Jan. 7 blaze for almost three weeks before extinguishing it, but by then, the fire had destroyed almost 200 homes and businesses, displaced most of the town’s 500-plus residents and killed two men.

Although the majority of Yarloop’s homes razed in the fire were wooden, recovery workers found asbestos in public buildings and asbestos-containing materials used in home renovations.

Asbestos health risks and safety hazards from damaged power poles prompted officials to close the town to the general public. Although officials urged residents to avoid the area, they didn’t mandate an evacuation.

“We appealed to them to leave because it’s a hazardous situation,” South West District Superintendent Peter Hatch told ABC News. “It would be foolish to stay.”

Hatch’s warning did little to deter nearly 60 Yarloop residents who refused to abandon the town. Many residents who left after the blaze returned home using back roads to avoid police road blocks and special permits.

Officials gave all remaining residents protective respiratory masks and information about the risks of asbestos exposure.

In an effort to minimize the danger of asbestos exposure in the town, officials sprayed PVA glue on all properties the fire destroyed or damaged and posted hazard signs.

Australind train officials told engineers to proceed slowly when crossing Yarloop to minimize agitation of deadly asbestos dust.

Asbestos Hinders Attempts to Rebuild

Rene Baur, a project manager in the rebuilding effort, told Mandurah Mail the intensity of the fire made for a difficult cleanup.

Moisture-soaked asbestos exploded during the blaze, creating a large contamination area extending beyond the smaller fire sites.

“It’s a complex operation,” Baur said. “We make the assumption everything is contaminated.”

The immediate focus is making Yarloop safe before starting repairs on the damaged infrastructure.

Western Australian news site PerthNow said Ricky Curtis, deputy incident controller for the WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services, described Yarloop as a “war zone.” He said it could take a long time before residents can return home.

“We are now transitioning into a recovery phase, which is good news because it is intended to get you back to normal,” Curtis said in a meeting with evacuated residents. “We are still in the midst of a complex situation, and we’ve got some work ahead of us.”

Community Gathers to Plan Yarloop’s Future

The WA government-funded cleanup process is underway, and it promises to be a long and complicated recovery.

WA Premier Colin Barnett told the media there is no predetermined position on the immediate future of Yarloop. Throughout the cleanup efforts, community members are working with leaders to develop a definitive plan.

In the meantime, displaced residents are unsure of their future.

Eleven days after the fire, beef supplier and philanthropist Andrew Forrest chaired a meeting attended by an estimated 120 Yarloop residents to discuss the future of town. Residents expressed a desire to remain in Yarloop and rebuild the devastated community.

Forrest strengthened their determination when he vowed to use his financial and political influence to make it happen.

“We can’t change the past,” Forrest said. “But out of the ashes can come opportunity.”

Opportunity may be a long time coming.

  1. Taylor, R. (2016, March 30). Yarloop demolition work begins on bushfire-ravaged buildings. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-30/demolition-of-yarloop-buildings-commences/7285680
  2. Turner, R. (2016, January 15). Asbestos risk for Yarloop low in wake of bushfire, Health Department says. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-15/asbestos-concerns-quelled-in-wake-of-bushfires/7092450
  3. Paddenburg, T., Campbell, K. & Le Messurier, D. (2016, January 10). WA bushfires: Two perish in Yarloop as residents flee from Harvey. Retrieved from http://www.perthnow.com.au/news/western-australia/wa-bushfires-family-fear-the-worst-for-malcolm-talyor-missing-after-yarloop-fire/news-story/75e1f0bc1d1631ef164c950afc8aabfc
  4. Hedley, K. (2016, March 30). Yarloop clean-up begins as state recovery team moves in. Retrieved from http://www.mandurahmail.com.au/story/3821334/yarloop-clean-up-begins-as-state-recovery-team-moves-in/
  5. Hedley, K. (2016, March 30). 'Everything is contaminated': Yarloop clean-up begins after devastating bushfire. Retrieved from http://www.watoday.com.au/wa-news/everything-is-contaminated-yarloop-cleanup-begins-after-devastating-bushfire-20160330-gnugma.html
  6. Bembridge, C. (2016, January 8). WA fire: Yarloop blaze creates own weather system, causing further grief for WA firefighters. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-08/perth-fire-creates-own-weather-system/7076884
  7. ABC News. (2016, January 22). WA fires in Waroona, Yarloop extinguished after burning for 17 days. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-23/all-clear-given-for-devastating-western-australian-bushfire/7109708
  8. Moodie, C. (2016, January 14). WA fires: Yarloop residents reluctant to leave town razed by blaze. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-14/yarloop-residents-reluctant-to-leave-after-fire/7089600
  9. Stewart, A. (2016, January 20). WA fire: Andrew 'Twiggy' Forrest lends a hand as Yarloop locals move to start over. Retrieved from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2016-01-19/andrew-forrest-wa-fire-yarloop-locals-move-to-rebuild/7099408
  10. AAP. (2016, January 8). 'No stopping' fire once it hit WA town. Retrieved from http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2016/01/08/no-stopping-fire-once-it-hit-wa-town
  11. McDonald, H. (2016, January 8). 'Mind blowing': Yarloop fire so hot and fierce, it generated its own weather patterns. Retrieved from https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/30522056/mind-blowing-yarloop-fire-so-hot-and-fierce-it-generated-its-own-weather-patterns/
  12. Emerson, D. (2016, March 31). Mixed emotions as dozers move in on Yarloop. Retrieved from https://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/wa/a/31220793/mixed-emotions-as-dozers-move-in-on-yarloop/

Lorraine Kember is the author of "Lean on Me," an inspirational personal account of her husband's courageous battle with mesothelioma. She is an accomplished public speaker in Australia and is passionate about sharing her journey with cancer. Her website can be found at www.lean-on-me.net

Related News Posts

Discover Our Free Resources & Services

Learn What We Offer

Social Media

Top Authors

View our resources for patients and families

Get Help Today
Click for Free Patient Resources