BURNING UP DOWN UNDER: Drought, limited grazing fuel fires in southeastern Australia | TSLN.com

BURNING UP DOWN UNDER: Drought, limited grazing fuel fires in southeastern Australia

A pile of dead sheep on Kangaroo Island, casualties of a bushfire. Kangaroo Island lies just off the southern coast of Australia and is 1,700 square miles. Fires have torched nearly a third of the island. Darcy Rice

Over 16 million acres have and are burning across the Australian continent. The extreme fires are the result of years of drought, recent high temperatures and mismanagement in the national forests, say agriculturalists.

The fires are mostly concentrated in the southeast and have burned an area about 1/3 the size of South Dakota. Green activists pressured the government to cut grazing in national parks and eliminate logging and cleaning out of excessive brush, resulting in massive amounts of dry fuel. The loss of human life, homes, property, hundreds of thousands of livestock dead and millions of native wildlife burned alive, are staggering blows to people who have been barely surviving the drought for the past eight years. The army has been called in to help with the clean-up and burial of dead cattle and sheep. The government is also offering some financial aid to those hardest hit.

Many of the fires have been blamed on arson and some have been burning for months. With the country in its summer season, if the rains don’t come, fire will continue to be an issue for the foreseeable future.

The past few months are regarded by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service as the worst bushfire season in memory. In December 2019, the New South Wales Government declared a state of emergency after record-breaking temperatures and prolonged drought exacerbated the bushfires. The National Forests contain large numbers of Eucalyptus trees which catch fire easily. Their sap is flammable, and so is their bark, which flies off when burned, igniting new fires up to 100 yards away. Native oaks and laurels are more resistant to fires, but eucalyptus trees burn faster and hotter, making wildfires harder to control.

Wilmot Cattle Company is a land, cattle and natural grass-fed Angus beef company based in the New England district of northern New South Wales, Australia.

The Bees Nest Fire had been burning in the Guy Fawkes National Park for close to a week, about 12 and a half miles away from Wilmot. On Sept. 6, 2019, strong winds of 30 to 40 miles per hour pushed the fire across a neighbor’s property and drove it right through Wilmot. They had very little warning and none from the authorities. About 2,500 acres of their 4,500 acres burned, but due a wind change and the heroic efforts of firefighters and neighbors with farm units they saved all their livestock and houses. The blaze took a few thousand young trees the family had recently planted, burning right through the tree rows and leaving pasture on both sides untouched because the pasture had been grazed.

The fire destroyed much of the grass they had been carefully saving due to the drought. Post-fire, they faced the difficult task of culling the herd. They have sold all their mature cows, retaining the young cattle which have a lower feed requirement.

Over the last few months Wilmot managers Stuart Austin, his wife Trisha Cowley and their children Harry and Poppy have been working with others to plant thousands of new trees, rebuild damaged fences and restore water systems. In a normal year they would have had 16 inches of rain since September but with the drought they have only received 6 inches so the land is very slow to recover. “We live in a 50 inch rainfall zone. Fires are very uncommon here. This one was particularly difficult to manage due to the severity of the winds behind it,” Austin said. “It has halved our turnover for the year in what was our driest year on record. Given the dry we haven’t been finishing any cattle of late, just trading into the feedlot and trying to retain some of our heifers to rebuild our breeding herd.”

Over half of the Wilmot Cattle Co. rangeland burned in a September fire. Photo courtesy Stuart Austin

“National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) are extremely under resourced and understaffed, they certainly don’t have the capacity to manage fires of this magnitude, particularly given the millions of acres under their management,” Austin said.

Dale Stiller posted photos on Facebook of the property he purchased in 2017 after dealing with years of drought at his home place. “Just trucked out the cattle from the Hannaford property. Ran out of water. Ran out of any decent feed a long time ago. Less than 4 inches for 2019 in a 24 inch average rainfall area. Have been managing to survive drought without aid for many years now. In 2017 when in devastating drought at the home Guluguba properties, I used my high equity to purchase a property with grass. In 2017 this Hannaford block had greater than average rainfall. In 2018 about 85 percent. Now this year only 17 percent. That little rainfall that the trees are dying and wildlife is suffering.”

Stiller brought his cattle home, closer to feed and plans on culling his herd even more. He has had to wean his calves months earlier than normal and sent many of the cows to a feedlot to fatten before selling.

“The widespread drought is what is making the fires worst. Where livestock are run the grass is grazed down but where there is a lot of locked up conservation areas there is this large very, very dry fuel load,” Stiller said.

Many celebrities have pledged monetary donations and local organizations in Australia are collecting donations of personal supplies and livestock feed for residents affected by the fires. BlazeAid has been a great help to many in the bush. Over 100 American firefighters have flown to Australia to assist the locals as they battle the ongoing blazes. The internet is full of heartbreaking images from the fires, stories of stockmen having to shoot badly burned livestock and the almost impossible task of trying to clean up the devastation left by the fires. For many the hardest part has been accepting help. Financially and mentally the current drought and fires are proving to be more than many can survive alone. F