Quick thinking saved couple's lives

26 Nov, 2015 01:00 AM
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IT'S a cruel blow that after almost 60 years of farming you would be forced to flee your home with only the clothes you're wearing and one box of photo albums.

But this was the story for 77-year-old Warren Liebeck and his wife Donna at Scaddan last week.

The home the couple built 42 years ago on Liebeck Road and raised their three children in was flattened to a pile of twisted corrugated iron and rubble in the blink of an eye by the deadliest bushfire to hit the Esperance Shire.

Warren originally farmed at Northam and came to Esperance to share-farm/manage a property in 1966.

He'd fought his share of bushfires over the years and thought he knew the area and what it could dish up pretty well.

But he had never seen anything quite like Tuesday's fire.

"It was either get out or die," he said.

"It covered such a vast area and we had our best crops ever, five tonnes a hectare in many places, with so much of it yet to be harvested.

"The fuel load was enormous."

In truth the couple owe their lives to the quick thinking of their son Michael and grandson Oskar who live about five kilometres away as the crow flies on another property.

They had been harvesting but stopped when the harvest ban was called.

Their harvesting contractor had just brought a new header out that day to get set up so they were confined to tinkering with it in the workshop.

"At about 4.30pm I got a call from a mate on a farm west of here saying they'd been evacuated and the fire had already made Scaddan," Oskar said.

"We thought we could be in trouble, because although we still weren't sure where the fire was heading we knew it was big.

"We got the machinery out of the paddock onto a dam catchment and I was trying to ring Nan and Pop but there was no answer.

"We grabbed the fire unit and raced over to their place."

Warren and Donna had no idea they were in imminent danger only that their power had gone out at about 4.15pm.

"They were trying to ring us but our home phone runs on power and mobile reception is hopeless," Warren said.

"We knew fires started by lightning strikes were burning at Cascades and Lake King but that was 100 kilometres away and the wind was in the north so we didn't think there was any danger.

"When the power went off we got out our little portable lamps so we could read and that's what we were doing when Michael burst through the door and yelled you've got to get out.

"We ran out the door in the clothes we were standing up in and the only thing we got was a box with some photo albums in it which Michael grabbed on the way out the door.

"They threw us in our car with the box of photos and we took off to their place."

Michael, Oskar and their workman set about wetting down the eaves and walls of the house and put the sprinklers on the lawn.

But it was evident the fire was too big and too ferocious and they could only retreat down the road and watch it burn.

Warren had decided to drop Donna off and come back to help.

"I was only gone 20 minutes and by the time I got back the fire had already jumped the road and was in the wheat crop next to the house," he said.

"I tried to get down our road to the house 1.6km away but the smoke was too thick so I turned back and sat on the corner and that was it.

"Everything we had was gone, our clothes, rainfall records for the last 50 years, all our farm records since we started, even my work boots.

"Donna kept meticulous records in big journals about every wool clip, every crop.

"I lost my old coin collection which had two rare 1937 five schilling pieces in it.

"Michael found a few coins the next day but they were pretty buckled.

"And we lost our workshop which had some really good gear in it.

"The only thing I'm not sure about is the guns, because the cabinet is still there but we haven't got a key to get into it."

One thing Warren is thankful for is they ceased running sheep two years ago.

"One of our neighbours had to shoot 500 sheep and another lost more than that," he said.

Indicative of the force of the fire, he knows of a 40 tonne field bin full of grain which caught alight.

"They knocked a hole in the side of it and spent two hours trying to shovel the grain out to save it but it was too burnt."

Warren said one of the hardest things was not being able to switch the brain off.

"I wake up in the night and start thinking about things I'll never see again like things from my Mum who passed away in 2010," he said.

He rues the fact they did not harvest one head of grain on his property.

"They were due to start here on the day of the fire but because of the harvest ban they didn't get here," he said.

"I reckon it would have done five tonne or more and we lost 2000 acres of it."

Warren says it was insured but only at 3.5 tonne for barley and three tonne for wheat, considerably less than predicted yields.

"The paddocks look like the Sahara desert now," he said.

The couple say they'll move to town now and are renting a small unit until their insurance comes through and they can purchase their own place.

They have been overwhelmed at the community spirit and generosity of people with offers of accommodation and goods.

"One person gave us $500 in an envelope to buy food and another a $400 voucher to buy some clothes," Warren said.

"It's incredible really."

Talking to them you know their spirit is severely dented but not broken and they'll get on with rebuilding with the same tenacity they employed when they took up their virgin property 42 years ago.

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