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Monday, 9 January 2012

Fire on our Hold!! Fire on our Hold!!! Hey Michael!

Disclaimer: I've tried to remember this as best I can. It all got a bit blurry by the end. Oh, and there may be some course language. Actually, I can guarantee there will be.




While I would be happy if I never fight or see another fire in my life, I will admit to finding a slight thrill in them. Something to do with the sudden rush when you first see the smoke, the panicky hurling everything off the ute as you load up the unit and scream out towards the smoke, wondering whose it is, where it is and what's going to happen, hoping it's only grass and not near a shed or house. The frantic chasing down of the front, the heavy machinery madly trying to cut the blaze off, the way everyone drops everything to come help. It can be a rush. And judging by the way others seem to get what I call "fire crazy", I'm not the only one. Utes which you weren't allowed in without wiping your boots first become scrub bashing, fire chasing water carts from hell, with the normally fastidious owner tearing around with their windows down, sucking plumes of smoke, dust and ash into their once pristine interior.

Turns out the thrill soon wears off when it's your place though.

On the 1st December 2011, after the best season the rangelands had seen for God knows how long, lightning struck Gabyon Station. It also struck Meka Station, Murgoo and Melangata, as well as down near Paynes Find. Now normally, this isn't a problem. Being new to the area, we have been told fires just burn themselves out. Might burn a thousand acres or so. When the paddocks range from 3000 to 20 000 acres, so what? Quite often you won't even know there's been a fire out there until you come across a burnt patch mustering.

Not this time. The fire burned for nine days and by the time the all clear was given it had covered 103 000 hectares and we've been told cost FESA damn near a million dollars.



On Friday morning, the 2nd of December, Gemma's father Michael (if you think that's confusing keep reading) rang to say we had a fire on Gabyon. All of us came from ag country and fires worried us. They were chasing it with Gabyon's fire unit and a shire grader and loader that happened to be doing the nearby road, but not having much luck, so we packed up our fire unit and headed up there. We got there too late do anything, but the neighbour from Carlaminda was there helping as well. The wind was uncharacteristic, howling easterlies straight off the desert. We planned the attack for Saturday over the maps on the kitchen table, working out which fenceline to cut a break along. FESA had arranged a bulldozer from Geraldton to come up and another loader and grader was on it's way too. They were also contending with the other fires in the district.

Oooh, shiny map.
Saturday morning saw the arrival of Michael (it gets better) and his dozer, accompanied by Jack, one of Gabyon's previous owners. We all headed up to the first fenceline to clear and Gemma and I went ahead in to see if the fire had reached where we were headed. It hadn't, so away the machines went, clearing a good wide break. At the halfway point the FESA chopper landed near us. We have a chopper? Awesome. Proud as punch, John, the controller, produced a nice fresh map of the fire boundary. We told him our plans, he suggested changing them slightly as he reckoned the fire would beat us. Fair enough. We weren't real keen about his new plan, as it meant writing off more land, but we went with it. They took off again, saying they'd keep in contact, and promptly pissed off to the other fires. Not long after, the grader got a flat. That's a worry. They managed to plug it and get going, but we lost time. The fire was starting to hit the break at three different spots at once. We only had three water units. Where the hell was everyone else, it's a fire for Christ's sake. Busy fighting the other fires or on standby in the ag regions due to the Severe Fire Dangers issued all over the place. We were on our own, three units trying to hold thirty kilometres of road verge and new firebreak. It jumped the break and we pinned it down the first time. But despite our best efforts it jumped the road and the cleared break. Where's that fucking chopper? He'd be handy about now. New plan. The dozer and Jack went to widen the north-south road (Tardie Road) it hadn't jumped yet, while the grader driver John (not the FESA bloke) and the loader driver Jack (not the old owner) went to try and get a break around where it jumped the east-west road (Pindathuna Road). Mid afternoon Justin from Carlaminda sent his worker David to go get their dozer. He could see we would need it. He did this not knowing whether FESA would reimburse him or not, as they didn't request it. Just on dark, a Volunteer unit from Geraldton showed up, ready for the night shift. There wasn't much more we could do, so we left them to watch a line and hoped it wouldn't jump any others. It had already jumped the Pindathuna Road and heading south. We'll see how far it gets in the morning.


A fair way. FESA showed up next morning with another lovely map, showing how the fire had gone from 4000 hectares to 35 000 hectares overnight. No shit Sherlock. Maybe a bit a aerial support yesterday wouldn't have gone astray. At least they'd organised some more gear. Another grader and loader had arrived, along with the Yalgoo tanker and Ben and Michael (I'm not joking) in the Mount Magnet fast attack. Those two boys were champs. They chased and put out more fire than anyone. They also got the most flats too. Again the chopper had to head off to the other fires. But least we had a map to show where the fire was two hours earlier. Everyone headed off to where they were going, not really knowing where they were going. Until Rosco from Tardie showed up with his plane. Legend. Absolute legend. His guidance from the air saved so much time and hassle . He'd put the dozer onto a clearer patch of land, or line him up with the nearest claypan. If he told you the fire was getting near the edge about 500 metres ahead, it was 500 metres ahead. Five utes, three graders, two loaders, two dozers and he could pick them all. Problem was, John's nose got put out of joint. Twice he asked Rosco to put down and  get on his loader. And twice we all immediately called Rosco for some guidance. Rosco did put down briefly for a little heart to heart with John. He was flying again within ten minutes. And the chopper buggered off again. Funny that.

Here she comes, whoops, there she goes.
By Monday we could see trying to hold it on breaks wasn't working. So where we could we hijacked the loaders and graders and charged through the bush to put out what fire we could. Now there's a novel idea. See fire, put water on it. Who'd have thought? By chasing down what we could, it meant we didn't have to wait at the main breaks, not really knowing where it would hit, or having it hit the break at different spots at the same time. At the very least, it gave us some breathing space. It wasn't always successful, but it beats waiting around all day only to have the fire go over your head when it hits. I got the impression the powers that be weren't real keen on the idea. Their biggest problem is they are so worried about something going wrong due to a bad decision they won't make a decision. Which is the wrong bloody decision to make!!! Between the fire that burnt out the truck drivers near Kalgoolie, the fires in the Kimberly that burnt a heap of marathon runners and the recent fire at Margeret River that burnt 40 odd homes from a controlled burn, they are paralysed by caution.

Backburning at Tardie
Thankfully, there was more of us than there was of them. By Monday evening, the southern edge was as contained as we could make it. The crew on the western edge were battling though. Roscos wife Emma and his father Michael (I'm not making this up) were holding the Tardie road line with the Mt Magnet crew, while all the machines headed up to the Tardie homestead. The wind was screaming and heading their way. In the end Emma and Michael had to head off while Gemma and Michael (me) held the road. We were holding it, but they were sounding panicky up at Tardie, so we had to leave the road and help them prepare. My God. Never have I seen so much grass around everything. Tanks, sheds, right up to the house yard, basically anywhere a vehicle didn't drive. And trees. Huge, beautiful, but explosive, gums. My first thoughts were "Oh shit." My second was "where's the matches?" The machines cleared roughly fifty metres of scrub around the house on the fire side. It wasn't going to be enough. Everyone could see it. All the available gear was there, about six units, and a 20 000 tanker full to the brim, but we hadn't held the fire on a break yet. We started suggesting to the controlling officer that we need to backburn, and we need to do it now. I had brought up my drip torch. Rosco agreed. If we couldn't hold a back burn, then we sure as hell weren't going to hold the main front. One hour. It took a whole fucking hour for the authorities to sign off on the burn. This was at 11pm. And I'm sure that was only because we threatened to do it anyway.  Like I said, more of us than them. And we get out of the office more. So away we went, very carefully of course. Fifty metres at a time, just watching the sparks fly overhead. Thankfully the wind died off, allowing us to light up the rest. It didn't burn far back at all, but it gave them another 50 metres or so of breathing space. Gemma and I left them to it and got to bed at about 2am.

You'd think that would be the end of it, wouldn't you?
Tuesday saw a change in the weather. More storms. Rain ya bastard, just bloody rain. Rumble, rumble rumble. Oh for fucks sake. You wouldn't believe it. Two new fires about 10 kilometres south of the Gabyon homestead, either side of the Tardie Road. Most the machines were still up at the north face, cutting a line there. We held one along a windmill track, but it took some doing, and was starting to beat us when it happened. Rain. It rained. There were puddles. Oh thank God. It got wet enough that the machines had to stop because their wheel were slipping. You beauty. Everybody went home and acted accordingly, which meant the Mt Magnet boys doing a run into the Yalgoo pub with a shopping list. They returned. We celebrated. Somewhat prematurely.

Wednesday the chopper landed and reported the fire was away again, and heading for the Gabyon homestead. Nervous that it was close to the main road, they shut it. And by close I mean about 8 kilometres north of it with a south westerly blowing. Rosco was still busy at Tardie, but the chopper was available full time as the other fires were out. John sent the two dozers along a fenceline to cut the fire off. The grader went ahead down the existing track while the dozers widened it. He never made it. The fire beat him halfway, and he reckons he was lucky to get out of it. The fucking expert in the chopper could not tell how quick the fire was moving, or how close it was to the fence. If a damn grader couldn't beat it, how the hell were two dozers going to? This is when we all started to get wild. The dozers had to turn around, load back up on the floats and head another 4 kilometres north to the next track. But not before they had bashed over some beautiful big gums along the road, all for bloody nothing.

By Wednesday evening they had a good six cut wide break along the north edge. We'd had enough. As soon as it cooled down we lit the bastard up. Bugger the authorities, we're doing it our way. But the weather didn't help us. It had cooled down that quick the fire hardly moved off the break. So we called it quits for the night and got some shut eye.

Another of many maps. 78 000 hectares. Handy for toilet breaks
Thursday saw us chasing the last of another little fire on the other side of the road, while others started to relight the back burn before the main fire hit it. While this was going on, the new FESA controllers turned up. Apparently John had been relieved. Aaron came in and promptly told Gemma the fire had jumped the road. She called me in a panic, which sent me and another unit, and a grader and loader screaming down the break to the road, some 2 kilometres away. It had jumped the road, but it was in an area already burning. It was still contained. Aaron had driven up the road with no idea what was going on and put the wind up us all. Meanwhile, once the grader learnt he wasn't needed, he turned back around to head back to the western edge he was working on. At the same time, Gemma was explaining to Aaron we need to stop it heading west, as that's where the bulk of our sheep were. "Can't you move them?"  He asked. You have got to be shitting me. Shift six thousand sheep off  one hundred thousand acres in country you can't get through on a motorbike? How about we just put the fire out? So Aaron told the grader the new plan. Turn around and get the break in. Now Jim, the driver, is a nice bloke, but I gathered he'd had a past to him, and you probably wouldn't want to piss him off. He'd already gone from west to east, then back east to west, and now this new bloke was telling him to turn around. He called me up. "What's the go Mick?" "No idea mate, turn around and I'll find out."
I pulled up at the house and met Aaron, who explained he's got the grader heading west to cut the western break because Gemma want the stock protected.

It was about now I snapped. "No you haven't, he's heading fucking east again after you told him to turn around after he'd turned around after I told him to turn around because you told us the fire had jumped the fucking road when it fucking hadn't. You come here, no idea what's going on and fuck us about." And so on and so forth. Plus Gemma has already torn strips of him before I got there. We'd all had enough. So after showing him what lines needed checking, his offsider Darra went up in the chopper to suss it out. Waste of time. Within 5 minutes he was too busy trying not to throw up, and when he landed was of no use to us at all. So I jumped in his unit with him and went for a ground inspection. As we were going along the main break we'd been back burning off, a few bushes flared up. I asked Darra if we could just sit here and watch it for a bit, and get onto any hop overs if need be. No worries. Which was fine, nothing jumped. We'd had been screwed anyways. Hours later he tried to fill the large tanker with his unit, and could not get it to work. Fat lot of good it would have been if the fire had hopped over.

And it gets better. Because Rosco didn't have a commercial pilots licence, FESA couldn't reimburse his costs. So they hired a plane for him to fly for the crew up the eastern end of the fire. With no fucking UHF radio in it. Seriously, I couldn't make this shit up.

Thursday afternoon all the lines where in, widened and graded bare. The north face had been burnt all along the break. And finally, a heap of volunteers turned up from Kalbarri, Dongara and Geraldton to go all night. We pointed to the freshly filled 20 000 tanker and said "Empty it. If it glows, drown it." And they did. Friday morning she was nearly empty and the fire was all but beat. I had to head home. We'd left in a hurry the previous Friday and had to organise people to look after the dogs, plus we had sheep come into the depot on Wednesday. Lucky we have excellent friends and staff. Saturday morning the all clear was given and Gemma came home, and we recieved 12 500 sheep over the weekend. Not exactly what we felt like, but considering a third of the station had burnt, we weren't game to say no.

So in summary, let me thank everyone who gave it their all for us. The volunteers and contractors did everything they could. And I'll also thank FESA for providing food, fuel and equipment. There is no way we could have done it without them. The fire would have hit Mullewa. However, ask anybody who has dealt with the hierarchy, and I have in the last weeks, they will echo my story with one of there own, and they are scarily similar. How you fix it I do not know, but there is so much arse covering going on nothing happens. If the Margaret River fires were run the way ours was, it's no bloody wonder forty odd homes burnt.

To finish off, some quotes from the fire.

Rosco (from the air) "Mt Magnet, can you boys just head up that track a bit...............Jeez those boys are fast. Having fun in the government vehicle I see."

Controller John (from the air) "Yeah , just head east along that track.........(pause as he talks to the pilot)......sorry, west."

Controller John (from the air to a grader) "It's about four kilometres to the end, John (driver) " Rosco. "It's actually fourteen kilometres to the end John, not four."

Controller Steve, showing us his fallback line of last resort. "If we have to, we'll light up along the highway up to Yalgoo, and along the Yalgoo North road." Gemma. "Fucking bullshit you will! That's the whole fucking station!"

Controller Aaron "Can't you just move your sheep?"

Some fellow in an office in Perth, ringing at 2am in the morning. "Just making sure you're aware, there's a fire on Gabyon and it's jumped the road." Gemma. "No fucking shit Sherlock. Piss off and let us get some sleep. We have to get up in a minute."

Waggrakine Volunteer Crew, seeing Gemma in the middle of nowhere, no vehicle, after we set her down from the chopper from airsickness. "Where the Hell did you come from?" Gemma pointing upwards. "Up there." "Are they coming back for you?" "Christ I hope not."

Jim, ex biker grader driver, after been told to turn around three times in half an hour. "Who's fucking fuck up is this?"

And my favourite

Helen (Gemma's Mum) to the latest controller to setup up office in her kitchen / dining room. "So, are you babysitting me, or am I babysitting you?"

And in case you were wondering, we had five Michaels, three Johns and two Jacks by the end. And an Emma and a Gemma. Given the time of year, all we were missing was the partridge in the pear tree.



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5 comments:

Becky said...

What a great yarn. Pity it is all true.

Joy said...

You have a really great writing style! A great blog, we need more AGvocates like you

http://cattleandcroissants.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

unfortunately that far, is soooo far fetched, that the government agencies must have been involved....oh my god, I have no idea how your managed to keep a sense of humour through that!!! Thank god for great neighbours, fab employees, amazing local networks and a
fXXXing sense of humour, well survived!!
Robyn Up north

BUSH BABE said...

OMG - what an adventure. Bushie's TOTALLY need a sense of humour. Imagine trying to survive without one!
:-)
BB
PS My personal fave quote?
"...Volunteer Crew, seeing Gemma in the middle of nowhere, no vehicle, after we set her down from the chopper from airsickness. "Where the Hell did you come from?" Gemma pointing upwards. "Up there." "Are they coming back for you?" "Christ I hope not.".. LOL!!!

Yvonne said...

Sounds like here at times, keeping your cool at a fire is damn near impossible!! Our grader had broken a pin, the guys were fixing it out in the paddock, telling the local firey not to light the backburn until they got out of there.... guess what he did? Yep, lit up like there was no tomorrow, and there very nearly was no tomorrow. Sigh