FIRES that swept through southwest Victoria have stunned firefighters and farmers with their speed and ferocity, devouring 18 homes, killing 2600 livestock and scorching at least 300 farms across 15,000ha.
Yet the fires — the cause of which remains unclear, but which were fanned by 100km/h-plus winds — have failed to crush the community spirit. CFA firefighters, farmers, government staff and politicians have worked non-stop since Saturday night protecting communities, assessing damage and organising recovery efforts.
By Monday, the Victorian Farmers Federation had launched a fodder drive and Agriculture Victoria teams began working across blackened paddocks in the region’s four main blaze areas — Terang, Gnotuk-Camperdown, Garvoc and Gazette — to assess livestock and euthanise animals severely burnt.
Dairy companies remapped their routes to get tankers into farms to pick up milk, while Fonterra’s Cobden electrician raced to connect dairies to generators so milking could resume.
Many farmers yesterday remained without power and some cows were yet to be milked, raising concerns about mastitis and longer-term animal health.
As fire-shocked farming families emerged from dairies and homes to assess the damage, they reserved their greatest praise for the CFA.
Gazette Angus breeder Nick Moyle, who lost pasture, fences, sheep and his son Harry’s home, said the CFA were “unbelievable, we can’t thank them enough”.
United Dairyfarmers of Victoria president Adam Jenkins backed up this sentiment, saying the emergency response was “outstanding”.
However, Mr Jenkins said the agriculture sector “lacked a co-ordinated approach” following the widespread power outage.
Hundreds of farmers remained without power on Monday night, 48 hours after the fire, and many scrambled to find generators to milk cows.
“Ag Vic do not have the seniority of staff at the table to make the big decisions, to decide swiftly what needs to happen to get this fixed,” Mr Jenkins said.
“Out of this, we need to look more at what the industry does to rebuild in that immediate second phase of an emergency, because this has showed we do lack expediency.”
At the height of the firestorm 400 CFA firefighters used 80 tankers to fight the main blazes, with aerial support. But while Emergency Management Victoria ran an aerial firefighting trial last month, a spokeswoman said it was not ready to launch night aerial attacks on the southwest fires at the weekend.
Several residents who spoke to The Weekly Times identified roadside vegetation and the hefty fuel load they carry as a cause for concern. One couple, who asked not to be named due to their distress, said they had to move fallen trees blocking roads with a farm tractor so they could flee the fire.
The southwest community is now focused on recovery, with the VFF setting up a fodder depot at Camperdown Showgrounds.
WestVic Dairy Industry Leadership Group said its members would also work with Blaze Aid in coming months to reinstate hundreds of kilometres of destroyed fencing.
Dairy Processor Murray Goulburn told The Weekly Times about six of its suppliers lost sheds, fodder and, like most in the region, remained without power.
“We are in regular contact with suppliers in the area to keep them informed regarding milk pick-ups and provide assistance, including providing hay and water as required,” MG spokesman Alex Evans said.
Fonterra reported 15 suppliers were hit, with damage ranging from lost fences and fodder to the loss of herds and buildings, and other suppliers were left without power. WestVic Dairy, with United Dairyfarmers Victoria and processors, was co-ordinating the delivery of generators to farmers.
A Fonterra spokeswoman said the company was able to pick up milk from its farmers, with officers working to help farmers deal with cow nutrition and milk quality problems.
A Powercor spokeswoman said its crews were aware of dairy farmers’ need to be reconnected to the grid and had brought in field teams from other areas of the state to speed up repairs.
Premier Daniel Andrews visited the region on Monday, praising the dedication, skill and “guts” of CFA brigades.
“The losses could have been much more significant, and ultimately there are no funerals to go to — that’s the most important thing when it comes to a fire like this,” Mr Andrews said.
The Weekly Times understands about 2000 sheep and about 600 cattle (mainly dairy) were either killed by the fires or euthanised.
State and Federal governments have joined forces to offer:
PERSONAL Hardship Assistance Payments of up to $540 an adult and $270 a child (up to $1890 a household).
EMERGENCY Re-establishment Assistance provides up to $40,700 for clean-up, emergency accommodation, repairs, rebuilding (a principal place of residence), and replacing some damaged
Agriculture Minister Jaala Pulford is today expected to announce $100,000 for the VFF’s Look Over the Farm Gate mental health support program and $300,000 to subsidise delivery of fodder to fire- affected farms.
Meanwhile, 1000ha and 70 homes were destroyed and 39 others damaged in NSW fires that started at Tarraganda, southeast of Bega, and spread to Tathra.
By: KATE DOWLER, PETER HUNT and KATH SULLIVAN
Source: The Weekly Times