Producers share their experiences from the fire front

Eric Barker and James Nason, 03/11/2023

Fires burning at Tenterfield this week. Photo: Jesse Moody

PRODUCERS across the country have been busy fighting fires for the past two months, with fires in almost every state and landholders taking a large part of the responsibility.

More than 2.7 million hectares has already burnt across Northern Australia, with blazes still burning across hundreds of active fires in Queensland, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and New South Wales.

Beef Central has been chatting some producers who have spent this week fighting fires and are now preparing for the road ahead.

David and Prue Bonfield from Strathgarve, near Dalveen in Southern Queensland, had been fighting fires for the past two days – with two thirds of the property burnt out.

“Some of that was timbered country, but a lot of it was pasture that we had been trying to maintain for the dry period,” Mr Bondfield said.

“This one did catch by surprise with the intensity of it, it was quite a big front, and it is not an area that is usually prone to fire.

“Because there are so many fires burning concurrently across the south-east corner the fire brigades were tied up and we were left to our own resources. We opened gates and cut fences to let livestock get away from it, then we protected what we could with a bulldozer and a couple of fire units.”

David and Prue Bondfield

Ironically, a b-double load of hay was on its way to Strathgarve to feed stock after a dry 2023 – it was cut off by the fires and the hay was delivered to someone else. Mr Bondfield said they had been managing the dry conditions for a while.

“We have been trying to maintain groundcover and we have been feeding cottonseed, dry lick and some hay for the last six-or-eight weeks,” he said.

“We have already sold our tier two-type livestock already and we now have the rest of our cattle on one third of the property, which has not a lot of grass cover. The livestock we have are valuable and we are going to be doing what we can to keep them good condition until we get another rain event.”

The Bondfields’ infrastructure, machinery and houses had been saved, except for some pumps on bores and some fences. The next job is to get the water infrastructure back and keep feed in front of the livestock.

They were also in the middle of a fixed time AI program, which Ms Bondfield said was important to keep running.

“We know that you can’t stop doing the functions or operations of the business because that impacts you in nine-months-time,” she said.

“You can never off the pulse, risk is always there for us and I guess that is part of being a farmer.

“We have a lot of friends from the city who say to us ‘I don’t know how you do it’ and I guess these events like the one we have just had are no reason not to do it – you just have to manage it.”

Winter burns help slow fires in Tenterfield

Tenterfield-based woolgrower Jesse Moody was preparing for his wedding next week when fires fuelled by dry grass and 45km winds came onto his property. He said he had done some burning in winter to prepare for the fire season.

“The two fires came together at the edge of our place, one hit the southern half of my place and the other hit the northern half of my place,” Mr Moody said.

Jesse Moody

“But because we had done the burning in winter, the fire just lost all momentum when it hit us and it wasn’t able to jump large areas like it was – after us the other properties didn’t get the fire.’

“Our neighbours on the other side have lost about 95pc of their country, some other people in the area I know had lost about 75pc of their country and if you draw a circle around Tenterfield it is all black.”

Mr Moody said fire crews had been working hard in the area grading fire breaks and fighting the fire – with people in town dropping food out to the fire affected area. He said a lot of trees were spontaneously combusting.

“They have a done a good job, you can hear the contractors and volunteers making fire breaks on the radio and the fire would just jump it, then they would grade another one and the fire would jump it too,” he said.

“By the time it reached us they had basically abandoned all hope and we were lucky it slowed down here.”

Mr Moody said he had managed to keep most of his infrastructure – except for some fences.

“We have about 600 sheep here and they were all safe, we have just put in about $100,000 worth of water infrastructure and it is all fine too which is good,” he said.

“A lot of people around here like to use wooden strainer posts on their fences so I would say there will be a lot of fence damage.

The Bureau of Meteorology has forecast widespread storms for north-east New South Wales and Southern Queensland, which Mr Moody said he was keen to see materialise.

“We were doing alright with our soil moisture because we had a lot of groundcover before the fire,” he said.

“But a lot of people are starting to get a bit nervous because dams are drying up and creeks are really starting to slow. If it rains it couldn’t come at a better time.”

Adam Coffey fighting fires all week

Cattle Australia director and interim CEO Adam Coffey had only just returned home to his Miriam Vale property following meetings in Canberra last Saturday when he and other landholders were called to join efforts to contain a nearby fire at Lowmead, between Gladstone and Bundaberg, that quickly grew into a behemoth.

It took the best part of a week, with only an estimated 15 hours sleep across that time, to bring the huge fire under control.

A number of properties were entirely burned out, but the week-long containment effort managed to stop the fire well away from the Bruce Highway, saving valuable grass and infrastructure on many more properties as a result.

“It was over the highway from us, but obviously we were all pretty motivated to keep it there,” Mr Coffey said.

He said it was never a good time to lose grass but particularly detrimental now for those who have, with no little to agistment available and a market as depressed as it currently is.

“The focus will be on that recovery phase now and to try and see who needs help and what we can do,” he said.

He also expressed frustration on behalf of other landholders involved that the local knowledge and expertise of property owners was being disregarded to the detriment of fire-fighting efforts.

He said the lack of recognition of local knowledge was a serious problem that needed to be addressed.

He suggests  a similar approach be adopted for fighting fires as occurs in emergency animal disease outbreaks, where landholders with local knowledge receive prior training in emergency management frameworks and systems and are included in local command centres during emergencies.

“There are certainly instances in different landscapes where local knowledge has got to be taken into account,” he said.




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