Builders battle WA blaze

A child’s bicycle sits destroyed among blackened tree trunks outside a house on Orchard Ramble after a bushfire in Margaret River.
A child’s bicycle sits destroyed among blackened tree trunks outside a house on Orchard Ramble after a bushfire in Margaret River. Will Russell

MAL Caithness's decision to check the surf on the way to the barber may have cost him a haircut but it helped save scores of homes during Western Australia's horrific bushfires two weeks ago.

The former Maroochydore "A" grade cricketer and Westpac commercial banker turned builder shifted to Margaret River with his family 15 years ago.

He was checking the waves when he saw the $1.8 million home he had helped former Coast builder Jeff Holzer construct for professional sailor Mick Wilson only last year appeared to be in the line of an out-of-control "controlled" burn lit by the Department of Environment and Conservation Control.

"I went up to the house to see how it was and 32 hours later we were still fighting fires," Mal said still in disbelief at what had unfolded.

"The house next door to us burnt to the ground. There are two options - you either get out or be prepared to stay and fight.

"Jeff and I built the house. I knew it was well constructed and would survive.

"It was touch and go. We (Mick and Mal) were surrounded by fire at one point which I thought would last five minutes but went on for more than half an hour.

"We were inside a firestorm. There were fire balls hitting the 10mm thick glass windows and buckling them but we survived.

"My wife Terri was a gem. She was ringing every half hour to check on us and ended up going to the command post and demanding they call us. We got a water bomb drop after that.

"The heroes of the whole thing were the helicopter bombers. They saved so many homes."

Mal's role was no less important.

After a day fighting the fire on the ground with the local firies, he and Mick were handed a spotlight and battery which they used to spot fires through the night from the balcony before heading to the roof from where he directed helicopters to water bomb at-risk homes.

"I watched six homes burn down but we managed to save 20 at the same time,'' he said.

"Another five were lost while the front went through us, but we then saved another 20."

Holzer was not so fortunate. He and his wife Nicky lost everything except the clothes on their backs.

Caithness said the fire had really brought the best out in the Margaret River community.

But there is no charity for the Western Australian government and its controversial policy to control fire with fire.

Topics:  blaze bushfire community controlled burn department of environment homes western australia

Stay Connected

Update your news preferences and get the latest news delivered to your inbox.

Future of telecommunication

Kristy Sparrow from Better Internet for Rural, Regional and Remote Australia (BIRRR).

Survey allows rural Australians to voice their concerns.

Taking a national stand

NO WAY: Students from Year 8 created 'No Way' bullying posters to show bullying has no place at Emerald State High school.

Local high school raises awareness against bullying.

Inland Port announced

ECONOMIC BOOST: Federal Member for Flynn Ken O'Dowd makes the funding announcement at the Central Highlands Development Corporation's Economic Futures Forum on Monday.

Ken O'Dowd announced federal funding for two major projects.

Local Partners