Cleaning up Kukerin chaos

15 Dec, 2004 10:00 PM
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IN the chaos of the Kukerin fire, farmer Michael Mitchell hurried into his house to get a cold water bottle just as the phone started ringing.

He answered it and it was a lady thanking him for his donation to the Kidney Foundation and asking if he would like to make another. He didn't stop to explain but hurriedly told her he had other things to worry about.

"Thinking about it later just seemed to bring it all into perspective. We were burnt but we could recover. It would have been worse if I were hooked up to a dialysis machine for the rest of my life," he said.

Counting his good fortune is the last thing to expect from a farmer whose 1650ha property was burnt fence to fence, who had 800 sheep killed and had his harvest brought to an abrupt end.

Michael, wife Anne and the 10 or so other families whose farms lay in the fire's path have a long summer ahead of them and, with the trees singed of leaves and the soil scorched and fragile, they will notice every gust of wind until the rain comes.

Also ahead of them is an extensive program of rebuilding lost fences, but Michael said apart from livestock, crops and fences, no-one suffered any major damage, thanks to the fortress of firefighters who defended homes and sheds.

Anne is the acting sister-in-charge of the Dumbleyung Hospital and said family spirit was still high, although it was easy to be despondent when fire had come so perilously close to destroying everything.

"We have so much to be thankful for. We still have our house and I have my husband and all that support - we are lucky to be living in a rural community," she said.

Michael was among the many who responded to the early call to fight the blaze, but from every stand they took, its ferocity pushed them back.

When it reached Mathew King's house two kilometres to the west, he knew it would inevitably sweep through his own farm and he raced to prepare.

After shutting the house windows, blocking gutters and turning on the sprinklers, he rounded up a mob of lambs in the fire truck and moved petrol cans out of the machinery sheds; they, along with the overhead fuel tanks, were untouched although they lost a single man's quarters only metres away.

"I didn't move my daughter's horse, which was just as well because the yards where I would have put him were burnt," Mathew said.

By the time the fire hit, grader drivers had almost denuded the pasture paddock with firebreaks, and literally hundreds of people with water units had formed a defensive barrier at the sheds to control spot outbreaks as the wind whipped along burning grass.

Their success in blocking a narrow front saved the main sheds as well as the horse paddock, homestead and two 20ha paddocks that were on the leeward side before the fronts rejoined and continued to blaze forward. Along with a few other strips totalling only about 50ha, the rest of the Mitchells' farm was burnt.

The main shearing shed across the road came even closer to destruction.

"It would be good to make a list of all the people we should thank but there were many we didn't even know," Michael said.

The help and support from friends and strangers continued to flow in the following day, when he was then confronted with the grim task of picking up dead and destroyed stock.

There was one paddock where everything perished in the flames, including his new Prime SAMM rams.

"There were no decisions to make - they were dead. Some were so badly burned the decision to shoot was easy," Mathew said.

Others assessed by vets as having a good chance of survival left him with a hospital mob of 60 that is still being whittled down.

Wagin machinery operator Ian Blake epitomised the generosity that came forward when he arrived with a backhoe to dig pits and refused payment for his work.

Michael has a second farm to the north-east, and although the fire swept through the southern half, he was grateful there were still four paddocks untouched.

"At least I can keep the lambs at home - they need to be looked after more than the ewes," he said.

He was also thankful for the offers of agistment and had sent 475 of his breeding ewes away.

He still wanted to send more but with trucks busy carting grain, it had been difficult to find transport.

Even with the available agistment, he has decided to keep only a core of 1100 Merino breeding ewes from the 1600 that survived, and is optimistic he can sell the 500 older ewes that he had planned to join to British breeds.

The logistics of agisting so many sheep away, having them lamb down, followed by the prospect of trucking them home, was not practical.

The ewes were carrying 10 months wool and this week Michael plans to get the shearing shed in order, replacing burnt beams and the loading ramp.

Already Western Power has replaced burnt power poles and an electrician has been prompt in restoring power to the shed.

Refencing is a bigger concern. Although there was plenty of time before the sheep have to return, it still would be a massive job and he hadn't yet started to clear fallen trees off fence lines.

On his own properties, Michael estimated there were 54km requiring at least 50 new strainer posts that needed to be replaced. "You can't ask volunteers to do all that," he said.

Only some of his fencing was insured and the cost of replacing all of it is well beyond what he could afford at the moment.

Friend Jim Heddwick from Margaret River, who arrived with the offer to stay for as long as he was useful, had been busy replacing poly pipe.

"Wherever we couldn't run it under the ground it was burnt, and getting water back on has been a priority," he said.

In the midst of the traumatic aftermath, Michael was overwhelmed by the promptness of local WFI insurance representative Greg Guile.

"He was out there at 7am the next morning and has been out every day. We have already had a cheque for the sheep and the crop insurance will be here in a couple of days," Michael said.

Kukerin's farmers are still coming to terms with their losses, but one that stands out is the destruction of their trees. Like other farmers, the Mitchell family had a long term planting program with an estimated 20,000 eucalypts planted in double fenced alleys and pines anchoring gutless sand.

The native species hopefully will regenerate but few of the pines will survive and, for neighbour Colin Joyce, this year's tree planting effort was wasted.

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