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 backroads 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.