The only sealed road linking Western Australia and South Australia reopened this morning after being closed for 12 days because of bushfires.
The closure of the Eyre Highway left hundreds of Nullarbor travellers and truck drivers trapped on both sides of the border.
Authorities reopened the 1,600-kilometre highway at 7:00am local time after fire conditions eased.
Frustrated and tired travellers were trapped on either side of the Nullarbor Plain while a bushfire burning near Norseman in Western Australia kept the highway closed to all traffic.
WA Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) Superintendent Andy Duckworth said motorists should be patient as they travel through.
“We appreciate everyone is frustrated and tired so we’ve taken these extraordinary measures over the last few days to keep people safe,” he said.
“The last thing we want now is for people to perhaps be involved in a road traffic crash.”
He said people should drive with care, adhere to the speed limits, be patient if they needed to overtake and be sensible on their journey.
Authorities were staggering the release of traffic to avoid congestion and had flown in extra police officers to patrol the highway.
But Goldfields-Esperance Sergeant Dave Christ said he encouraged people to postpone their travel.
“The advice is to wait at least a day or a couple of days to just give the traffic a chance to clear itself and make your trip a lot smoother,” he said.
The decision to reopen both the Eyre Highway and Coolgardie-Esperance Highway was made after fire conditions eased in the area.
Supt Duckworth said the fires were at advice level but still uncontained.
“There’s still work to be done and obviously as the weather changes so can the situation,” he said.
“We’ll be monitoring and working hard over the next few days, potentially weeks, to get these fires controlled and extinguished.”
Travellers stranded for days
The ABC spoke to visitors from Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia who were caught up in the extended closures.
While some were frustrated, most praised emergency services and volunteers in the towns in which they were stranded.
Glenda Allen from Warrnambool was in stuck in Esperance for six days and said she was “absolutely ecstatic” to be heading home.
Adelaide truck driver Glenn Freestone said the closures had “crippled” the transport industry.
“Out of the past month, I’ve been stuck for 22 days,” he said.
“I can’t wait to get back on the road, and hopefully if everyone plays nice we will get there safely.”
An ‘unprecedented’ situation
Coles and Woolworths said the closure had impacted the supply of some fresh produce in stores this week.
The companies used other transport options like rail to bring in products and minimise the impact.
WA’s peak road transport body said while fresh fruit and vegetables would return to shelves in the next few days, it would take much longer for farmers to recover.
Western Roads Federation chief executive Cam Dumesny said closing the vital route for nearly two weeks was unprecedented and would have significant consequences for the state’s economy.
“We have a lot of our produce growers here in WA who were sending their seasonal produce across to the east,” he said.
“Because of this closure, they’ve probably missed a fair chunk of their profits for the season.
“It’ll take some time to stabilise.”
Mr Dumesny applauded DFES, police, volunteers and the communities who supported the stranded motorists.
But he said the state would “need to take a deep breath once this is over and have a hard look at how we’ve managed it”.
“I think there’s some hard lessons we need to learn … how we look after people out there, sustain them and keep them updated with what’s going on.”