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.
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.
|Backburning at Tardie
|You'd think that would be the end of it, wouldn't you?
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
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.
If you enjoyed this please support my Kickstarter publishing project.
Wydjawanna Station Kickstarter