Regional bushfire sparks SHCC evacuation on Friday afternoon

Have you ever wanted to leave school early on a Friday afternoon?

Be careful what you wish for!

This concept became a stark reality on Friday, 15 March 2024 for the 500 students at Southern Hills Christian College (SHCC) when a nearby blaze in the Bedfordale region began drifting towards the SHCC school grounds.

The Admiral Road site of SHCC is surrounded by bushland, with Principal Mr Paul Beacham always aware of the natural threat of bushfires.

“This site is amazing for our students in terms of connecting with the natural elements around us, but we always have to be vigilant. Thankfully our staff are always alert, and we have an excellent resource in Mr Vallance [Mr Rhys Vallance, Head of Risk & Compliance – SCEA] for times such as this,” said Mr Beacham.

At 1.00 pm on Friday, Mr Beacham became aware of the fire, situated to the east of the school near the Wungong Dam. While still a distance away, Mr Beacham worked together with his team to ensure that if the fire started to head in the direction of the College, they would follow their plan to evacuate students to Armadale Recreation Centre, leaving all vehicles, bags and non-essential belongings behind at the College site. Only a short time later, Mr Beacham made the wise decision to evacuate the site.

Minutes after Mr Beacham had commenced the evacuation plan, Incident Controller Mr Terry Wegwermer from the Department of Fire & Emergency Services (DFES) arrived to confirm the need to evacuate the school to the designated area in Armadale so that parents and guardians could collect their children.

While Mr Rhys Vallance provided surveillance of the fire area from the SCEA Head Office, Acting Chief Executive Officer Dr Gregg Weaver travelled to the Armadale site to assist the staff with dispersal.

The staff at Armadale Arena provided the Southern Hills team with refreshments on Friday afternoon, with the Department of Communities (DOC) fully prepared for the occasion and staff on hand to assist with this crisis situation for the students.

“The staff have been absolutely superb,” said Dr Weaver.

“They have left their vehicles and belongings at the school site and prioritised the safety of these students and their families. Paul and his team are to be commended for their efficiency and diligence in following evacuation plans perfectly.”

The heart of the blaze up close on Friday afternoon.

Within 15 minutes, buses sourced from West Coast Bus Charter service were on site and within 35 minutes, the entire group of staff and students had vacated the school.

On Friday night, Dr Tony Buti MLA and Mr Hugh Jones MLA volunteered to help the Salvation Army Emergency Services by providing hospitality for the 200 volunteer and regular firefighting crews who were battling the blaze. Dr Buti, who is the Education Minister for Western Australia and spoke recently at the SCEA Commissioning Service for 2024, echoed his support on Saturday morning after seeing the affected areas overnight:

“I want to thank all those who fought this fire and supported firefighting efforts over the last couple of days. This morning there were still 125 firefighters on scene to ensure no breakouts took hold,” said Dr Buti.

With the blaze under control on Saturday morning, Mr Beacham and some of his staff returned to the school site to retrieve cars, and personal belongings and work with parents to return school bags to students. Many parents took to social media to praise Mr Beacham and his team.

On Monday morning, Swan Christian College (SCC) Chaplains Mr James Ellis and Mrs Victoria Jayawardene travelled to SHCC to provide counselling for students involved, with former staff and well-known SCEA ex-Principal Mr Mike Pitman on site to assist staff and students with their daily routines.

“I have to thank Dr Darnelle Pretorius and Mr Mike Pitman for their assistance at this time,” said Mr Beacham.

“When times are difficult, and you feel stretched, it is amazing to see people you know and respect coming to your aid. I am also grateful to Mr Rhys Vallance, who has handled this situation incredibly well.”

The extent of the blaze has not yet been fully counted, but one thing is for sure – Southern Hills Christian College staff and students will enjoy their Easter break this year knowing that they have remained safe in a time of imminent danger.

The community has rallied around to ensure that no lives were lost and all property is secure.

SHCC College Principal Mr Paul Beacham welcomes back students this week following the busy weekend.
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