The fire started on the Friday afternoon of the long weekend in October. I got a call to get on the Rappville truck to a fire up at Busbys Flat. We got up there after midnight. A couple of other units joined us from town. The fire had gone on the part of the road that was in a cutting, and it was going up the mountain. We couldn’t get access with the trucks to get ahead of it, so that night it was decided to come back at daylight. The RFS had organized a bulldozer to try and cut a break to get into this rough country.
We were back there early morning, had an access point off the spine of this ridge. The plan was to get around that break that the trucks could get in, and we could work on the fire. But when we got the dozer in a certain distance, we found that the fire had already gone to the next region.
It was a difficult fire, because of the dry conditions. I was three days on when our crew was told that we had to take a break. So we went home.
The penny started to drop, and we bolted for home
We went to work the next day, did some cattle work on the property over near Wyan Rd. We could see the fire out west and it was starting to get fairly angry looking. The wind was blowing the smoke to the south, but it was blowing towards old burnt country, so we didn’t have a lot of concern. Then the wind changed, and instead of blowing to the south the smoke was blowing straight towards us. The penny started to drop, and we bolted for home. By that time there was a lot of people moving about; neighbours picking up their prized possessions and getting out.
We got home and there was no fire anywhere close to us, but you could see it to the west, and it was coming. Sometime Tuesday morning it had this run, upwards of ten Ks, and two hours later it was at our place.
We had a ute with a pump and a 600-litre tank on it. I was poking around with a little tank on a buggy. The boys’d knock it down, and if it started to spring up again, I’d be coming along behind with a little bit of water and mopping it up.
I got a bit worried at that point because the smoke was totally blinding us – I’m talking five metres visibility. As soon as the other fellows’d go into it, I didn’t know where they were. I’m guessing that they’re somewhere in this area behind a track that was bare dirt. We’d go down there and we’d try and do our best to put out anything that jumped over that track. We’d try and keep that from getting going because it would have come up to the houses. Mainly it was smoke that drove us back. My son Ryan and I had our RFS gear. We had goggles and N95 masks, which made a hell of a lot of a difference. Don didn’t have one though and he knocked up with the smoke. He had to get out of it for a while. There’s nothing like not being able to breathe and not having somewhere to go to get some relief.
At that stage I did something that I regret doing now – I asked Ryan to keep going by himself. We both went back down there but I stayed on my buggy and he went in the ute. But that was a mistake. I didn’t see him for 20 minutes and I started to worry about whether he’d come to grief. There’s stumps you can run up onto, or the bank of a creek you might run into. All that started playing in my mind. I was happy when I came back to the house and found he’d come back as well – he’d come past me in the smoke, but I hadn’t seen him.
So, the threat was here. The fire was coming up out of the watercourse. We’ve got a big shed for the machinery, and the race was on to keep it away from the shed. It got into our silage bunkers, burnt them, but that’s not like losing a shed, which is a pretty big investment.
The danger wasn’t past though. I was up at midnight, looking for embers in the houses, in the roof cavities. Then we checked other things, like timber bridges. We put a fire out that was creeping back towards a bridge.
You’d think the whole place would have gone, but there were patches that didn’t burn. The fires would be just creeping back around, gradually consuming everything if you didn’t stop them. And that’s probably the story the whole season – without actively stopping it, eventually it was going to eat everything. It was just a hungry, hungry Pac-Man.
We’d put our horses in the yards just to stop them galloping around, maybe going through a fence. My daughter had a ute load of dogs with the motor running. But I couldn’t do anything for my stock. The fire just came too quick.
We had 27 cattle that died either in the fire or had to be put down after. We had help from the DPI. We didn’t have to put down any livestock, they came and did that for us. They also had machines dig the pits and bury them. But I had to do some of that myself.
I lost about 18 cattle in a corner of a paddock that we were renting off one of my neighbours. Those cattle died close to a house, so I had to bury them quickly because of the stink for that house to have to put up with.
There’s no point pulling punches – the cattle, they cook when they’re burnt. They cook and that speeds up the decomposition. Their paunches blow up and they explode out of their skin. And at that point they won’t stay intact. So you have to move them. They’re tangled up in the bush. They’re in trees. You go in and snig them out with a bulldozer and hopefully everything comes out with them. And at that point it’s get pretty critical that you get that hole dug and get them buried.
It’s amazing how much work’s involved in burying 18 cows. It’s a big hole; 12-14 metres square, a metre and a half deep. I haven’t been back near that spot since. If I never have to go back there, that’s alright. It’s not my property and I don’t need to go and see that.
I feel sorry for all the animals that died. There was a koala in amongst the carcasses of my cattle and I thought, You poor bugger. You died just like they did. You didn’t have a chance.
You don’t dwell on that, on what it was like for them. I know that some of those cattle died against the fence that we trained them not to bust through. And some of them have tried to run back through the flames. Cattle will naturally herd together when there’s a threat, and there were some that were huddled together. But there were some that were scattered randomly for a hundred yards through the bush, and I know those cattle have run back through the flames.
Straight after the fire, so that people could get the fences up along the Wyan Road, power poles were repurposed to get posts back in the ground. That was something that my neighbours Tony and Geoff Norris did that was a real support for those farmers that really didn’t know where to start. They started at Rappville and they came up Wyan Rd – went for 12 Ks up to the T-junction and back down to Kippenduff – and everywhere that there was a burnt out strainer post they’d cut off a burnt off power pole (because they burn off at the ground and then fall over). Then they’d cut them into a fence post and stand it back beside the burnt strainer post. Then you could string some wire, bang a few steelies in, and get a fence up and get the cattle off the road. It was a moral boost at a time when people didn’t know where to start.
The help took the shock and the impact out of it because we just got on with it, and had the energy and heart to do it. There were a lot of welfare agencies that were involved too, and individuals. People that turned up in the first couple of days, parked here and just went to work. The feeling of support and camaraderie was great. And I could never thank people enough.
I wrote down the things that happened. Like companies would come in with a load of molasses, say ‘Just come and get it.’ I call it lollies for cattle. It’s a source of energy, and that’s what we didn’t have. We didn’t have anything. We didn’t have protein. We didn’t have energy. We just had dirt.
I wrote a letter 12 months on. I sent it to everyone that I could, but there’s probably some people that I missed. It’s funny, you might not talk to those people ever again, like that company that donated the molasses. I had a fella, an old bloke, a cane farmer from the Tweed that sent me a check. Just turned up in an envelope with a letter. I met that fellow and thanked him afterwards. Ken Baker’s his name.
The photo with the barbed wire heart stapled to it, my cousin’s partner came over from the Tweed to help us after the fire, she took that. It was probably just some sentiment she had.
That’s a very powerful photo. It’s my favorite photo. That photo embodies BlazeAid and all the volunteers and family that came and helped. And that’s love in action, as far as I’m concerned.
Love, sweat and tears