IN a tough year with stock feed at a premium it would seem a gutsy decision to set fire to almost 500 hectares of wheat stubble as a fire break.
But for Graham Moir, Glenelg Estate, Amelup, with a 19 kilometre boundary exposure to the Stirling Ranges National Park and the raging bushfire that ended up burning 40,000 hectares inside and outside the park after Christmas, the gamble was simple.
Burn a strip of stubble along the national park boundary or risk losing those 500ha, plus another 5670ha of stubbles and pasture, up to 7500 Prime SAMM sheep and lambs including stud stock, his hill-top home with uninterrupted views of the ranges, a $700,000 newly rebuilt shearing shed, a lamb feedlot and his silos, sheds, trucks and farm equipment.
November's harvest was not good.
Mr Moir, his wife Shirley and sons Murray and Brenton cut 200ha of canola for hay, the rest averaged 600 kilograms per hectare, wheat and barley crops were down by as much as a tonne per hectare on average and an oats crop failed because rainfall for the year was only 240 millimetres and followed "barely 300mm" the year before - in an area that normally receives 450mm.
So the sheep and feed for them will be an extremely important part of the enterprise this year.
The family's livelihood was at stake the minute a lightning strike on Boxing Day afternoon between the Bluff Knoll car park and the knoll itself ignited highly flammable and extremely dry park vegetation less than 5km south west of their farm.
So the stubble fire break was burned over two and a half days on December 27-29, with the assistance of local bush fire brigade volunteers who gave up their holidays to help and with approvals from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) hierarchy in Albany and local WA Parks and Wildlife Service (PAWS).
"Some of the stubbles had been eaten out so it was a pretty small sacrifice for what could have been and we did it with very little water (as equally precious a commodity as feed in the Great Southern at present)," Mr Moir said as he gazed out his living room window across 3km of his farm to the national park boundary and now bare ramparts of the ranges to the south.
"We've protected our farmland.
"We were being pro-active rather than reactive," he said.
Mr Moir indicated his example should be picked up by public land managers across Australia to help protect property.
"We've always had a good working relationship with them (PAWS and DFES),'' he said.
"The authority from Parks and Wildlife came through - mind you, our approach to them was fairly forceful - but they trust us, they know we're not cowboys.
"We just told them we were going to do it (burn a fire break along the northern boundary of the national park east of Chester Pass Road and clear three major creek lines just inside the boundary because they flow out through Glenelg Estate).
"The good neighbour policy kicked in," he said.
One Glenelg Estate neighbour was concerned about the fire break burn.
"I just told him when he goes to bed to be thankful that he still has a bed and a home to sleep in," Mr Moir said.
"Fire is a ruthless bloody thing, it takes no prisoners.
"I just know when it comes out of the park it wipes out farms, it destroys marriages and lives with the pressures it creates."
A fourth generation farmer at Amelup and a member of local bush fire brigades since he was a teenager more than 40 years ago, Mr Moir has plenty of experience fighting bush fires around the Stirling Ranges National Park.
He was Gnowangerup Shire's bush fire brigade chief fire control officer (FCO) for two years and its deputy chief FCO for almost 20 years.
He is still an FCO with the Borden Bush Fire Brigade."It's been 19 years since they (Stirling Ranges) were burnt (to reduce fuel load) and I was the deputy chief FCO then," he said.
"Before that they were last burnt in the 1970s.
"In the 1970s the fire came out (of the national park) and they burned a standing oat crop in November to stop it, they just burned it and that has always stuck in my mind."I was involved in the Armstrong fire that came out (another fire that started in the national park and destroyed an adjacent farm to the west of Chester Pass Road) and the authorities for whatever reason wouldn't allow us to burn the breaks,'' he said.
Mr Moir said he and his wife were relaxing at Bremer Bay on Boxing Day with current Gnowangerup Shire chief CFO Darren Baum when son Murray rang to tell them of the fire.
"He started moving stock off the boundary immediately," Mr Moir said.
"I was actually having tea with Darren (who oversees Gnowangerup, Ongerup and Borden bush fire brigades) and he was starting to get calls too, so we planned there and then what we were going to do, over our camp oven fish and chip night.
"He rang (PAWS regional management at Albany) and they weren't confident they were going to contain it (bushfire) and said they thought we've got a problem."Darren also rang (DFES) rural area manager Murray Hatton and told him of our plans.
"The Moirs and Mr Baum headed home early Friday and by 2pm fire brigade volunteers and trucks gathered at Mr Moir's shed for a briefing.
"I didn't do a tally but there must have been 100 people there, every brigade was here, it was awesome, it was quite emotional," he said.
"On Saturday there were guys who came from 30 and 40km away, they cut their holidays short and came home early."
It was just a magnificent response.
"In the middle of it there was a lightning strike at Camel Lake (west of Chester Pass Road) so we had to slip half the team off to attend to that.
"A neighbour brought in a big 40 foot two-way disc plough and he ploughed all the breaks in front and we came along behind and burned all the blocks out - we just started at one end (of the boundary) and burned into the wind.
"We took a 200-300 metre (wide) strip but some paddocks along the creeks we totally blocked off because the creeks run north so if fire got into them then all our block work (fire breaks) would have been for nothing.
"On Sunday, when the fire (in the national park) got on its bike with a strong westerly behind it, we were able to put a lot more fire fighting resources down the eastern end (of the national park) to assist those guys down there because we knew we were safe this side.
"In our favour on Sunday, it had been forecast to be a south westerly and that had us worried, but it stayed a true westerly with a tad of north in it which made life quite safe here."
Mr Moir said the fire break burn was co-ordinated with fire fighting efforts inside the national park and on other boundaries - the fire came out of the national park into farmland to the west and east of its boundary with Glenelg Estate where the fire break did its job as planned.
On the Monday the volunteers returned to mop up which was over by about 2pm and followed by a few beers in the shed, but a more extensive "debrief" is expected when everyone returns from holidays.
Through last year Mr Moir and his sons experimented with deep ripping in some paddocks and they are now planning to do that on the fire break.
"We might even throw some oats on it if we get rain," Mr Moir said.
He was critical of the lack of bushfire mitigation through fuel reduction burns in the Stirling Ranges National Park that had led him to take the drastic action he did.
"It's unbelievable, why haven't they done some mitigation work?" he said.
"Start sacrificing and start burning some stuff - the problem is, they've done no (fuel) reduction burning forever.
"You need 12 years for it (dangerous bush fuel loads) to regenerate and they (PAWS) look at doing it (fuel reductions burns) twice, so every six years.
"They put out a prescription (to burn) but if conditions aren't exactly right, it doesn't happen.
"So you end up with no reduction burns for nearly 20 years and when there is a fire like we've just had, everything gets cooked.
"The cost of managing this fire is going to be extreme - at one stage they had eight aircraft fighting the fire in the national park, it was like Pearl Harbour, they were coming in one after another to bomb the fire.
"So they haven't saved money by pulling out resources (and not doing fuel reduction burns) in the long run."At least they won't have to do anything now for the next 20 years because its (Stirling Ranges National Park) has all been burnt."