Race was run by 'a mob of cowboys'
Australian police have criticised Hong Kong-based adventure racing company Racing The Planet for their staging of an ultramarathon which left two runners fighting for their lives after they were trapped in a bushfire.
A competitor in last year's event also questioned the company's preparedness, labelling them 'cowboys' who had no idea about the tough conditions in the remote Western Australian wilderness.
However, Racing The Planet CEO Mary Gadams - who was among those sent to hospital with second-degree burns on her hands, arms and legs - was adamant her company had done everything possible to ensure the competitors' safety, describing the bushfires as 'an act of God'.
Sydney model Turia Pitt, 25, is in a critical condition while marathon veteran Kate Sanderson, 35, has gone into a coma after being caught in last weekend's bushfires. Both have burns to 80-90 per cent of their bodies. They were among 11 runners who became trapped in a narrow gorge as bushfires - which police said had burned in the Kimberley region for up to a week - changed directions.
Kimberley police Superintendent Mick Sutherland called into question the organisers' risk assessment.
He said police were only told of the event on August 16 and had not been asked to give any briefing about the dangers of such remote areas, particularly during the fire season.
'I don't know what their level of preparedness was,' he told The Sydney Morning Herald. 'I would expect people who run such an event to contact local emergency providers when making risk management plans.'
A competitor in last year's event told Sydney's The Daily Telegraph that organisers had to urgently fly in intravenous fluids after seriously underestimating the amount needed. The medical professional, who wished to remain anonymous, said organisers had rationed about only eight bags of IV fluids a night for the 200 competitors but on the first day alone runners went through 35.
'I found them to be a mob of cowboys,' the competitor said.
Footage of last weekend's 100-kilometre Kimberley Ultramarathon shows smoke on the horizon after the start, and the course reportedly had to be re-marked just before the event after fires burnt ribbon markers.
Gadams, a 47-year-old American who started her company in 2002 and has lived in Hong Kong for 10 years, argued that only 15 kilometres of the 100 kilometre race was off-road and tourists had even been walking around happily beforehand.
'In that region there are little grassfires going on. Everyone accepts them and do not believe them to be a threat,' she said. 'But we take an extremely conservative approach to these races and would not have let it go ahead if there were safety concerns of any kind.'
While organisers said they sought pre-race advice from 'authorities', police said they had not named who they spoke to. 'We don't know which authority they actually checked with,' acting sergeant Adam Conwell told The Daily Telegraph. 'We are obviously keen to find that out.'
The average winter temperature in the Kimberley region
It is one of the hottest regions in Australia