Three of the four people killed in the Esperance bushfires were workers on an Adventist-owned farm who left the property during the blaze in an attempt to save a horse.
ABC News identified the victims as three foreign nationals—a 19-year-old German woman, a 29-year-old Norwegian woman and a 31-year-old British man—who were serving at the Karranga farm, located between Grass Patch and Salmon Gums.
Farm owner Linda Campbell, who is a member of the local Esperance Adventist Church, said the trio decided to leave the farm after the man got nervous about the fires and wanted to save his horse.
Their escape, however, turned deadly when the farm workers turned the wrong way out of the farm gate and into the blaze. Their vehicle and the attached horse float was found 4km down the road the next day.
“It’s absolutely devastating,” said Mrs Campbell. “I never planned for them to leave. I never thought leaving was an option. But they said they wanted to go.”
Mrs Campbell said she advised the trio to head the other way down the road.
“They probably got mixed up with everything that was going on and because the way they went is the way we normally go when leaving the farm.”
Adding to the tragedy, the fourth person killed in the bushfires was Mrs Campbell’s neighbour, Kym “Freddy” Curnow, who left the safety of his farm to help the trio when he saw they were in danger.
The death toll could easily have been five, as Mrs Campbell’s daughter almost left as well.
“When the girls were going, I asked my daughter if she wanted to go. She said, ‘No, I’m staying with you.’ That decision saved her life.”
“I had a plan”
The Esperance fires were some of the worst bushfires the country has seen. The Fire Danger Index (or FDI) classes a catastrophic fire with a minimum score of 100. Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires, which claimed the lives of 120 people, registered at 189 on the scale.
The FDI score for the Esperance fires was 260—the highest score ever recorded in Australia.
“It was dark, it was red, the embers were raining down on us,” Mrs Campbell recalled. “It was so windy and noisy, like a stream train coming through.”
The fires close in around Linda Campbell's property.
Mrs Campbell had developed a fire plan a decade ago, but had never had the need to use it. Ten years later, she credits the plan for saving her family and her home.
“I knew I had a plan,” she says, “and so I managed to stay clear, calm and focussed through the whole thing.”
Mrs Campbell quickly deflected any sort of credit, however, acknowledging instead the efforts of her family and staff—as well as the local fire chief—who “worked so hard and went above and beyond.”
A community comes together
Members of the local Esperance community gathered together this past week to remember the victims.
Mrs Campbell said the support has been “absolutely amazing.”
“We’ve had huge amounts of best wishes and prayers. All of us who have been affected are looking out for each other.”
Mrs Campbell is reaching out to Mr Curnow's wife in particular. While looking through her car this past week, the Adventist farmer found a copy of a Signs of the Times magazine entitled “Where is God when I’m hurting?”
Mrs Campbell said she had planned to give it to Mrs Curnow some time ago, but never got around to it.
“She was going through some stuff a little while ago so I thought it might help, but it kind of slipped my mind to give it to her,” Mrs Campbell explains. “I’ve now given it to [Freddy's] sister to give to her.
“I guess you could call that a little God story to come out of all this.”
Adventists in action
Esperance Adventist Church pastor Brad Thomas said Linda’s church family are “looking at ways to support her and her family any way we can.”
The Campbells also lost a shearing shed and some animals in the blaze.
Other Adventists have been affected too. In a post on Facebook, farmer Rhonda Morcombe said the fires claimed a number of shearing sheds, her garden and an old tractor. Some of her crops were also destroyed.
“Some have lost so much more,” she said in the post. “Please pray for my fellow farmers as they consider and count their losses. Thanking my God over and over and His blessings!!!”
Adventist Church leaders have echoed the calls for prayer.
“Keep up the prayers, brothers and sisters, for all the folk in that beautiful region of our state and country,” said Western Australian Conference president Pastor Terry Johnson.
Mrs Campbell lost most of her geese in the fires after many of them tried to escape. The two geese to survive were mothers who stayed to protect their eggs. The day after the fires, three goslings were born.
Church members have been active in serving those most affected by the bushfires.
Suzanna Cuplovic, director of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) in Western Australia, said her team of volunteers from Esperance church is taking care of accommodation for those displaced from the area.
Adventists are working with other faith communities and Hope FM in Esperance to raise money for bushfire victims. They also organised a community prayer group last week at the local museum village for anyone to attend.