Bettink's burnt dairy returns to normal

20 Mar, 2015 01:00 AM
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At one stage Julie looked across and said 'I think the bull paddock's on fire'.

LIFE on Wally and Julie Bettink's Northcliffe dairy farm is slowly returning to normal - now that most visitors don't have flashing lights on their vehicles.

The last property on Riverway Road, 10 kilometres south-east of Northcliffe and abutting Shannon National Park and the Gardner River, the Bettink farm was attacked from three sides over Sunday and Monday, February 1 and 2, as one of the State's largest bushfires roared out of the forests.

Most of the Bettink's 404 hectare farm and four of their five lease blocks on nearby Boorara Road were burnt.

Miraculously the 350 cow Friesian-Jersey cross dairy herd, replacement cows, calves and some Angus heifers and steers on the lease blocks - about 850 animals in total - survived with only a couple of minor singes.

Also miraculously, the Bettink's 64-year-old timber home built by Wally's father after he took up the land in 1951, survived because Ms Bettink watered down the house and surrounding garden as the fire burnt through the forest 200 metres away.

Their dry pasture, including the bull paddock opposite the house, was burned as were most of the fences.

Some silage and the irrigated green pasture survived - a pivot irrigator operating on the hill opposite the house and brick dairy, between them and the fire on the Sunday night, helped save the buildings.

The Bettinks now rely on truck loads of donated hay delivered direct to the farm to feed their herd, and it will remain that way until spring before their own pasture regrows.

They have moved about 100 head off the property to reduce the demand for dry feed but cannot move many more out.

"We didn't see DPaW (Department of Parks and Wildlife) for four days," Mr Bettink said last Friday.

He is a volunteer firefighter with the Northcliffe Bushfire Brigade but was away from home fighting the bushfire on Saturday and Sunday until told his own farm was threatened.

"It was alright for us to be in here, but they said it was too dangerous for them," he said.

"We couldn't leave because we knew we wouldn't be allowed back in again and the cows have to be milked every day no matter what, otherwise they dry up, or get mastitis, and that's our income gone for the rest of the year.

"At one stage Julie looked across and said 'I think the bull paddock's on fire'.

"The fire was only just over the fence but you couldn't see it in the smoke."

After the immediate danger passed the Bettinks, their family - two daughters and a son returned home in the week after the fire - relatives and friends who came to help faced a week of nervous uncertainty.

Every two hours, night or day, somebody had to take a ute and check for spot fires and where the stock were.

The logistics of running the farm in the week after the fire were problematic with people having to drive to Pemberton to get a permit to re-enter the Northcliffe fire zone.

On the Tuesday, Mr Bettink had to do some swift talking and "borrow" a jacket and hard hat from a firefighter to get a milk tanker driver through a roadblock to pick up his milk - luckily they were on a two-day collection schedule.

On the Thursday, Ms Bettink stood in line for 90 minutes to get a permit for a truck driver delivering feed pellets so he could get from her farm across to another dairy farm in the fire zone.

Thankfully, everyone who got a permit and came to help the Bettinks brought a car load of food and supplies with them because there were up to 15 people staying at times.

Dairy farmers in the fire zone worked together and swapped wash-down chemicals and other supplies - they could move between farms inside the zone but could not leave the zone with any certainty of getting back in - to keep each other operating.

"The people running the fire (fighting effort) had no idea about how dairy farms operate and that was part of the problem," Mr Bettink said.

However, while critical of DPaW and the way the Department of Fire and Emergency Services managed the fire, Mr Bettink was full of praise for local Department of Agriculture and Food officers.

"(Manjimup district manager) Ian Guthridge and Jason Dearle were outstanding, really resourceful," Mr Bettink said.

"They made two trips in here the back way bringing in a bit of diesel, that was absolutely critical, because without it we couldn't have kept milking, everything runs off a diesel generator."

The Bettinks also praised Manjimup Shire workers who regularly called in and also cleaned and refilled farm drinking water tanks contaminated by ash and possibly fire retardant dropped from the air.

Members of the Bunbury Men's Shed and cycling clubs came for two days and put most of the boundary fences back up using wire supplied at cost by Southern Wire and donated steel posts and a crew from Elders Manjimup spent a day fencing.

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Mal Gill

Mal Gill

is wool and dairy writer for Farm Weekly

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