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Denmark bushfire firefighter Murray Brooker reflects on 'intense and high speed' fire

Firefighters on WA's south coast knew they were in for a long night as wind took an approaching blaze over the top of them straight into the bush behind.

A year has passed since Denmark was devastated by a bushfire which took more than 100 firefighters and multiple waterbombing aircraft several days to bring under control.

The bushfire ripped through more than 2,000 hectares of land, four homes, four outbuildings, and destroyed vehicles and farming infrastructure.

Murray Brooker was one of hundreds of firefighters who worked to extinguish the fire after it started on February 4 last year.

Quick escalation

It was a Friday, and Mr Brooker was in town meeting up with friends before heading out to do some fire compliance visits.

Being the lead bushfire ready facilitator for the Shire of Denmark, he received a called from the chief fire officer who asked him to investigate the appearance of smoke.

Emergency services were already on standby due to the forecasted hot weather conditions and strong winds.

"The serious conditions weren't actually forecast until the Saturday," Mr Brooker said.

He was in the first fire trucks on scene, alongside a Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions vehicle, and a few others with fire gear.

"Probably within 10 minutes of being there, the fire was already heading towards housing — certainly conditions were changing quickly and becoming more and more serious with the dry grasses, dry bush, and the wind that had picked up," he said.

"It looked like it was going to be quite serious from early on.

"Down the hill from where the fire ignited, there were probably three or four homes that we had to defend before we could actually get a look at or realise what we were going to do, because the fire was actually at their doorstep immediately."

He took on the role of sector commander for Limbourne Road.

"We thought we had an opportunity of stopping the fire coming south and west because we had a nice break, three vehicles, and well-trained crews," Mr Brooker said.

"Just as it was approaching us, the wind picked up, and I can remember standing with the crews and the fire went straight over the top of us into the bush behind us.

"That was perhaps the first time I'd experienced a fire of such intensity and speed that it went over the top of our vehicles."

Once it was realised the fire was bigger than initially thought, the effort became more coordinated and crews were recruited from all over.

Mr Brooker went home in the early hours of Saturday morning.

"Even going home at one o'clock [in the morning] I couldn't sleep," he said.

"I had the radio on just listening because you just want to get back out there, be with your mates, and people doing the job."

The fires in Denmark weren't the only disaster that weekend, with fires in the Wheatbelt proving equally devastating.

They destroyed eight homes, torched more than 50,000 hectares of bush and farmland, killed more than 1,000 livestock and levelled innumerable sheds and other pieces of infrastructure in one weekend.

Community bands together

The community united as emergency services battled the blaze in the ensuing days.

Residents held a wash day for the fire trucks where people came from all over with buckets and mop while local community groups made sandwiches for the crews.

"Every single person you came across was thankful. The community was fantastic," Mr Brooker said.

He said 66 houses were at risk at one point during the blaze.

"Due to the great work, not only of the residents, but of the fire crews and people managing the fire, we only lost four," Mr Brooker said.

"That's a tragedy for those people, but in the scheme of things, it could've been much worse."

Denmark has experienced an increase in emergency services volunteers and an expansion in the number of bushfire ready groups since the fire.

The shire has also become the first in the state to fund an administrative role for the bushfire ready groups.

Mr Brooker said he had continued his fire compliance visits and educating the community.

"The people who were organised and prepared in the past, prior to last year's fire, are even better prepared," he said.

"Those people who probably didn't understand what was required, have gone to a good level of preparedness.

"So I think a future fire is going to be better managed and better handled.

"It's important that we keep [the impact of last year's fire] in people's minds."

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