Spending a day with Tasmanian farmers whose properties had been affected by bushfire was sobering, listening to and telling their stories was inspiring.
Three months after the fierce January 2013 fires in the Derwent Valley, a busload of local farmers came together to help each other find solutions to themany issues arising from the aftermath.
A field tour was organised by Derwent Catchment NRM South committee vice-chairman Matthew Pitt to show farmers the impacts of the 2012 and January 2013 bushfires, which have scarred more than 20 farming properties in the area.
It was also an opportunity for farmers to share information about how they are recovering from the fires – tackling issues such as soil erosion, pasture recovery and getting boundary fences back up.
The 2012 fire, known as the Meadowbank fire, burnt an estimated 2000 hectares and at one point lit up a fire front more than a kilometre wide and three kilometres deep.
The second, the Lake Repulse fire, was part of the firestorms that raged across Tasmania in January this year. It burnt out 11,608 hectares in the Derwent Valley area, while on the Tasmana Peninsula the Forcett fire destroyed 25,687 hectares.
The Lake Repulse fire burnt just under 1500 hectares of Jim’s Allwright’s property and he says it was like a war zone, with choppers flying everywhere.
Three months down the track farmer, Jim Allwright, is only just coming out of damage control.
“The fire here was really intense,” he says. “We lost 200 sheep, half our poppies, an entire wheat crop and two thirds of this year’s cherries.”
Since the fire he’s managed to put back a lot of the fencing, but it can be dangerous out in the paddocks, with most of the old paddock trees so severely burnt they are still falling down. Nearly all will have to be removed, and that will require big, expensive forestry equipment.
He also lost a stand of pine trees planted in the sixties to stabilise the soil bank down by Lake Meadowbank. Getting them out will be another huge expense, and he needs to start thinking about what he’ll replace them with.
“The biggest challenge after a fire is making what’s left of the property function as a farm,” says Jim.
Where a wheat crop once stood is now bare, wind-blown paddock. Jim hopes the weeds that sprung up after the fire will help keep some of the topsoil down, but knows that the reality is most of the nutrients have been blown away by the dry summer winds.
He’s now working with NRM South’s bushfire farm recovery program to get a mix of chicken manure and sawdust onto the paddock to help stop further erosion and seed nutrients back into the soil.
In comparison you could say Tom Clark is lucky, and his easygoing manner would probably let you get away with it.
For Tom, like most farmers in the area, his first priority after the fire was to get boundary fencing up, and a few internal fences built so that he could control stock grazing once the pasture was healthy enough to let cattle and sheep back in.
But fencing doesn’t come cheap. Matthew Pitt puts the cost at roughly $8000 a kilometre, and Tom’s farm lost about 18km of boundary and internal fencing. In all, it is estimated Derwent Valley farmers lost 200km of fencing to the two fires.
One of the good things that has come out of the fire on Tom’s property has been the burst of forest re-growth that is taking place at the bottom of his paddocks, and Tom is now working with NRM South’s farm recovery program to fence it off.
The Inland Silver Peppermint Eucalyptus tenuiramis is listed as a threatened community in Tasmania, and Tom’s keen to use the rebuilding process as a chance to fence it off and make the most of post-fire re-growth.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” he says. “New seedlings are growing down there in the forest really well, and if we don’t take advantage of the opportunity now this forest will just keep dying back.”
Joining the field day were Bushfire Recovery Taskforce Chief Damian Bugg QC and John Harkin from the Bushfire Recovery Unit, as well as local farmers Tim Gebbe, who has a property at Ellendale, and Bob Shoobridge, who had 600ha burnt out by the Meadowbank fire.
Local fire brigade chief Patrick Ransley and his wife Kim also took part. Half their farm was burnt by the Lake Repulse fire, but they are proud of the fact that well planned vegetable gardens and lucerne paddocks surrounding their beautiful celery-top pine house slowed oncoming fires and created a safe haven for local fire fighters.
“I feel like I’ve spent a lifetime carting rock to clear those paddocks so that I could plant them with a fire buffer of dryland lucerne,” says Patrick.
“But after the fire I can see that it was worth it. Those paddocks provided a safe place where you could settle your mind and a sense that you could defeat the fire.”
Dr Kerry Bridle from the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture, NRM South weeds co-ordinator Karen Ziegler, and Ken Moore, our Regional Landcare Facilitator, were also on-hand to answer questions.
“The Lake Repulse fire in January caused devastating damage to many farms in the Derwent catchment,” says Ken.
“This field day is part of NRM South’s program to help get farmers back on their feet by giving them a chance to see what other farmers are doing to recover from fire, re-establish their businesses by rebuilding farm infrastructure and tackling issues such as soil erosion, pasture regeneration, stock management and weed control.”
NRM South CEO Dr Kathleen Broderick was deeply impressed by the spirit and innovation she saw during the field day.
“You can’t stop catastrophic fires like those we saw in January,” she says. “But once you hit recovery mode farmers can take advantage of the rebuilding process to better plan their farm by planting crops that will slow future fires, or changing the layout of farms to improve grazing and fence off remnant vegetation.”
Ending the day at Jim Allwright’s property was a sobering reminder of the impact bushfires have had on the region. The tops of his cherry orchard have been cut off where they were scorched by the Lake Repulse fire, and the beautiful, big old paddock trees scattered across his farmland bare the brutal marks of an intensely hot fire.
“When you live on a farm there’s so much to do that you can’t afford to spend too much time crying over what you’ve lost,” he says.
NRM South offered support to farmers affected by bushfires to help with their farm recovery process. The projects were provided with funding from the Australian Government’s Caring for Our Country and eligible activities included:
- Farm recovery planning and advice.
- Managing soil erosion.
- Weed management and hygiene to prevent weed spread.
- Soil health and pasture recovery.
- Remnant vegetation recovery.
- Rehabilitating riparian zones and corridors.
- Internal fencing to maximise productivity and NRM outcomes.
- Planning laneways, livestock and watering points, sheds and fuel storage.
- Future fire mitigation.