Conditions are expected to get worse before they get better for the firefighters battling the Perth hills blaze with authorities warning of gusty winds heading into the weekend.
Winds up to 35 km/h are forecast for the region on Friday night into Saturday morning with stronger gusts up to 80 km/h possible. But there are hopes that forecast rain over the rest of the weekend will ease conditions and give weary firefighters a chance to get on top of the 10,000ha-bushfire.
The number of homes destroyed in the Perth hill bushfire climbed to 86 on Friday following further work by assessment teams.
The Department of Fire and Emergency Services commissioner, Darren Klemm, told reporters authorities were expecting to battle “incredibly strong” winds before any rain provides relief.
“We are expecting incredibly strong winds … tomorrow ahead of that tropical low,” he said. “At this time, we’re being advised that we will see rain on or about the fire ground at approximately 11am tomorrow [Saturday]. But between now and then, we have still got the challenges of these really strong winds.
“There is no letting up here. And, you know, I want to make the point - the rain is not guaranteed either. So, our planning is still continuing, should that rain not occur.”
Catherine Shelshowt, from the Bureau of Meteorology, told the Guardian the rain forecast to follow the wind would hopefully provide some relief for the region.
“The winds will ease a bit during the day, and we will expect some rain to start developing over the northern suburbs of Perth during Saturday,” the meteorologist said.
“We’re expecting some rainfall, probably between 10-15mm, with some isolated showers of up to 30mm. If they get enough rainfall, it will certainly dampen things, it probably won’t put out the fire but it will absolutely help their efforts.”
The emergency warning area was reduced on Friday as crews continued to fight the fire and police investigated a “suspicious” secondary fire.
Firefighters have been working diligently to clear the worst-affected areas while continuing to fight flare-ups on the northern flank of the blaze. Efforts were made to clear roads and allow some residents to return home.
The DFES issued an alert late on Friday saying cooler weather and progress on “mopping up along containment lines” meant areas east of Reserve Road were not under immediate threat anymore.
However, the alert maintained that there was still “uncontained fire activity” around the intersections of Clenton Road, O’Brien Road and Ewing Road.
Crews have been fighting the out-of-control fire for five days and damage assessment teams have made their way through hundreds of hectares of burnt landscape to discover five additional homes gutted.
Klemm said those houses were probably destroyed early in the week and he paid tribute to some of the victims.
“The bulk of the losses occurred in the first 12 hours of the incident,” he said.
“It’s an extremely difficult time for those homeowners. Our thoughts are with them. The whole emergency services family, we stand with them and acknowledge the difficulties that they are going through.”
Klemm said the DFES would work with the affected families over the next 12 months to support them as they recovered and rebuilt.
The premier, Mark McGowan, on Friday described the damage as “devastating”.
“The people whose homes have been destroyed or severely damaged, we’re all thinking of you,” he said. “And the firefighters who’ve put themselves in danger to protect the community, thank you so much.”
Some 200 homes in Shady Hills and Avon Ridge were saved on Wednesday night, but crews were tested on Thursday afternoon after a fire broke out just kilometres east of Bullsbrook. That fire is not thought to have been started by spot fires and has been deemed suspicious.
Many residents in Bullsbrook had already evacuated after strong north-easterly winds placed the town in the way of the massive main fire. That situation continued into Friday morning.
The DFES said it immediately sent aircraft to help control the new outbreak with firefighting teams following close behind.
An emergency evacuation warning was in place around the small new blaze for some time, but the area was later returned to “watch and act”.
The incident controller, Peter Sutton, urged anyone who may have seen how the fire was started to come forward.
“That fire was suspicious so if anyone has any information on that fire or [dash] cam footage, could they please call Crime Stoppers,” he said.
The emergency warning area was reduced on Friday as crews worked to strengthen containment lines.
Evacuation orders were only in place for parts of Avon Valley national park, Behlhus, Brigadoon, Bullsbrook, Ellenbrook, Gidggannup, The Vines, Upper Swan and the Walyunga national park. But some areas were still under immediate and severe threat.
No lives were lost in the fire but Dr Garnett Hall, the WA division president of the Australian Veterinary Association, said the impact on animals had been significant.
“The most common injuries are burn injury, where we got direct thermal burns to the skin and on their feet, to their eyes, their lips, their mouth. We’ve been seeing that on horses, on sheep, on a few alpacas and goats,” he said.
“It is confronting. We are used to seeing animals with injuries, but burn injuries are especially bad. Not only do they look extremely gruesome but they’re amazingly painful for the animals as well. They were so happy that we’ve been able to get in there and get pain relief and appropriate first aid.”
There is no tally on how many animals have been injured or killed so far, but Hall said volunteer veterinary teams were just being able to access the worst-hit areas.
“We’ve certainly seen animals that have been trapped in their enclosures. In some cases, you had a fire come in and just burn through every bird in an aviary. Sheep do get trapped by fences as well,” Hall said.
“It’s bad, but it’s not completely catastrophic … A lot of animals had time to get away.”
There were more warm temperatures on Thursday night with strong gusty winds and low humidity, and although the conditions are difficult, DFES deputy commissioner Craig Waters said consistency was on the fire crews’ side.
“The strong winds will pose some troubles and issues overnight [into Friday], however the consistent wind direction will hopefully enable us to avoid having to deal with outbreaks in unexpected areas,” he said.
Waters said although 90% of the fire had been mapped that did not mean they had brought it under control.
“Crews worked extremely hard, in trying conditions, and managed to stop any spread to Shady Hills and Avon Ridge,” Waters said.
Protecting these towns was a mammoth effort, with hundreds of firefighters battling steep terrain as 11 aircraft worked to drop 200,000 litres of fire retardant. These created strong break lines, which crews ultimately believed to have saved hundreds of homes.
Former fireman Stewart Brisbane, 55, stayed and defended his rural property north of the blaze.
“The embers were raining in on us last night with the wind changing and picking up,” he told AAP on Thursday.
“I had all my pumps set up and the neighbours all banded together and helped each other. But after they dropped the retardant the fire didn’t move.”
Thousands of residents have been forced to evacuate their homes for multiple nights, but Sutton urged patience as crews worked to clear hundreds of kilometres of road.
“The issue is that people within the fire area whose homes have been lost, there are a lot of hazards still around, there are power lines down, and we have the issue of asbestos because of the area, and we also have issues with chemicals because it is a semi-rural area,” he said.
“So we ask people to be patient. We understand that you want to get back in but so far with this incident there has been no loss of any human life and we certainly do not want any human life to be lost during this critical phase.”
Fire crews were hopeful weather would improve after Friday, with rain and cooler temperature forecast for the weekend.
“We’re hoping for rain [on the weekend] from that tropical low but we’re not banking on it,” DFES spokesman Rick Curtis said.
The main bushfire has now burned through 10,822ha.
With additional reporting from AAP.