Kimberley towns of Halls Creek, Kununurra and Wyndham isolated as flooding forces highway closures

Road access to Western Australia’s East Kimberley region has been cut off due to annual wet season flooding.

The Great Northern Highway, which services the townships of Kununurra, Wyndham and Halls Creek, and many Indigenous communities, was closed on Monday evening, just east of Fitzroy Crossing.

Main Roads WA said it would remain shut until floodwater subsided, which was expected to take two-to-three days.

The Victoria Highway has been cut from the east since January 17 due to flooding in the Northern Territory along the Victoria River.

NT authorities expect it to remain closed until later this week, pending a damage assessment.

An annual occurrence

Wet season road closures are an annual occurrence for people who live in the region and businesses often stock up on goods in preparation.

The Bluebush floodway on the Great Northern Highway recorded 550mm by 6am Tuesday.(Supplied: Department of Fire and Emergency Services)

Shelves last year were stripped bare in the main hub of Kununurra when the region was cut off for a week, largely due to the Fitzroy River Bridge being damaged in record flooding.

Shire of Wyndham-East Kimberley deputy president Tony Chafer said the simultaneous closure of both the Great Northern and Victoria highways was unusual.

“It’s particularly challenging when the road to the south gets cut off, as that’s where our food comes from,” he said.

“It just reminds you how isolated your are, and how vulnerable the road network is in this community.”

Rising waters at Two Mile Creek on the outskirts of Fitzroy Crossing.(Supplied: Department of Fire and Emergency Services)

While the highway closure was expected to be in place for only a few days, Mr Chafer urged supermarkets to be proactive in sourcing supplies and to avoid the empty shelves seen during last year’s flooding.

“I think there’s been a bit of panic buying; a few of the shelves were empty already,” he said.

“Have a look at the air freight option a little more seriously.” 

‘No problems at all’

Shire of Halls Creek president Malcolm Edwards said he was concerned about road access when a tropical low began moving across the region.

“I was concerned about the Great Northern Highway and having experienced the Fitzroy Crossing thing last year, that was also on the back of my mind,” he said.

“What extent is this going to isolate us?”

Shire of Halls Creek president Malcolm Edwards said the town was prepared for flooding.(ABC Kimberley: Andrew Seabourne)

With supermarkets stocked, Cr Edwards said he was unaware of any impacts on the town other than road closures.

“[In] the actual town itself, there’s been no problems at all. There’s no one even impacted by any floods in town here, so everything’s okay in Halls Creek,” he said.

With access to Perth dependent on road closures around the town, Mr Edwards said works on the Tanami Road this year would be important.

“[The] Tanami actually gives us another access road … they’ll be working on it this year and hopefully in the years to come, it’ll be completed,” he said.

In Kununurra, Mr Chafer agreed the Tanami, once sealed, would become a critical alternative freight route.

“We’re closer to Adelaide than Perth with the Tanami sealed, so it does give us another option,” he said.

“Quarantine issues can be dealt with before the truck leaves Adelaide.”

Supermarkets prepared in advance

Halls Creek IGA manager Michael La Rosa said past wet season experiences ensured his store was prepared for the weather system.

“We’ve just ordered extra in-order stock in products that have long life, water and ordered the staples most of the customers buy the most of in this area,” he said.

“With the meat, we’ve got plenty frozen, so if trucks do get stopped from fresh chicken or meat, we’ve got all back up in frozen lines as well.”

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Mr La Rosa said he was on top of what the store needed in the middle of the wet season and said there had been little impact so far.

“We’ve gone through this last year … we’re looking like it should be pretty good today and hopefully we have trucks [with stock] tomorrow,” he said.

Wet weather heading south

Residents in the Pilbara communities of Newman, Jigalong, Parnngurr and Telfer are being warned to brace for severe weather conditions as the tropical low system moves south.

Eastern parts of the Pilbara may receive up to 100 millimetres of rain as the system moves through, and there is a chance the heavy rainfall may lead to flash flooding.

Department of Fire and Emergency Services Pilbara Superintendent Darryl Ray said residents should prepare for significant closures across the region’s network of unsealed roads.

“We’re still expecting to have some sort of isolation, mainly because of road closures,” he said.

“If you are travelling in the area, make sure you keep track of where the system is, what your routes need to be and [whether] you really need to go there.

“If you can stay put for a couple of days, do that instead.”

With flash flooding also forecast, he said people also needed to stay clear of any floodwaters.

The Victoria Highway closure has prevented travel between the East Kimberley and Northern Territory.(Supplied: Vic River Roadhouse)

As of 9am on Tuesday, the small mining town of Telfer had already received 43.2mm of rain, and Newman was expected to receive rainfall and thunderstorms by the afternoon.

The weather system had also forced the closure of Karijini National Park, with the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) announcing the park would close from 4pm on Tuesday.

DBCA Pilbara regional manager Alicia Whittington said authorities announced the closure due to the risk of flooding.

“The prediction at the moment is it’ll come over Karijini, or very close to, and potentially will get a bit of a downpour at Karijini,” she said.

“The gorges there are likely to flood significantly.”

The rain will come as relief to some in the Pilbara, after a severe heatwave left many sweltering through temperatures in the high 40s.

Paraburdoo twice broke its maximum heat record over the weekend, reaching 48.1 degrees Celsius on Sunday.

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