Farmers band together

Gavin Willis and Andrew Scoullar relive the first days of the Dunns Road fire, insisting that a fire break around the nearby plantation pine would have stopped the blaze within its first 24 hours.

ged” land can be considered virtually unstoppable,” wrote the group in their submission to the Bushfires Royal Commission.

“We just want the forestry to be better neighbours,” explained one of the organising members, Gavan Willis.

Mr Willis and his neighbour, Andrew Scoullar, were both born onto the lands they now own. They describe the current forestry buffers as “insulting” with just 10 metres left clear between the pine plantations and neighbouring fence lines. 

Both men survived with their houses, but lost their livelihoods as the fire started in the pine and tore through open farmland in the last days of December 2019 and early days of January  2020.

They were on the front lines, and speaking about the walls of flames which were unbearably hot, even at a distance of 120 metres, still causes both sun-worn farmers to get emotional.

“We don’t have time for mental health,” said Mr Willis, commenting on the government’s push for counselling support for fire victims. For weeks after the fires, he was too alert to be able to sleep, waking in the middle of the night even weeks later to extinguish hot spots which threatened his remaining sheds. 

On February 5, a full month after the fire front passed through the Lower Bago, Mr Willis woke in the middle of the night to find two trees flaring up and threatening his property.

In the days immediately after the fires, they had no power or phones, and no time to leave their properties to make calls or file insurance claims.

Both men hold ranking positions in the local fire brigade and spend every summer watching storms roll in, monitoring the lightning-prone valley for flare ups. They say summertime fires are the local way of life, and the only thing that’s changed over the past century is the land management in the pine plantations.

“If we had this management 100 years ago, we would have fires like this then,” said Mr Willis, describing how pines have been ironically planted to offset carbon emissions, packed so tightly that they leave no access for either air or ground-based fire fighting.

“There’s a price to pay for it, and we’re paying it,” he said.

“The Valley Farmers Group of Lower Bago was formed to lobby for proper land management by all pine plantation managers and government agencies responsible for land management,” explained the written submission. “The current situation seems to be that the plantations are “sort of” required to have a six metre cleared strip around the edge of plantations (Which exists almost nowhere), a seventy metre gap between plantation trees and a habitable dwelling, and a thirty metre gap between trees and power lines. 

“None of which is in any sensible consideration, remotely adequate, in fact it appears the regulations were written on behalf of plantation managers, as greed and corrupt behaviour is the only reason such a travesty could be legalised.”

Peter Crowe, Chairman of the Softwoods Working Group, said SWG doesn’t have a position on the issue, but said that “there are legal requirements around firebreaks as they currently exist,” which he said have been heavily debated and strictly implemented.

“The legislation’s been put in place years ago,” said Mr Crowe. “There’s rules about it. There’s already strict legislation about it which has to be complied with and is closely monitored.

“SWG doesn’t have any position on the matter whatsoever.”

But the two Lower Bago farmers say more has to be done. They insist a 100 metre buffer is needed between plantations and their neighbours, to allow access for fire fighting equipment or lines of retardant to be laid in and contain the fires which invariably come.

“It’s not huge amounts of country we’re talking about,” said Mr Scoullar, “Just a few trees. 

“You can’t fight a fire in the pine.”

Mr Scoullar said the Valley Farmers had the Dunns Road fire contained in their grazing lands when it first broke out of the densely-planted pine, but there was no way to reach it amongst the trees. He said during that first 24 hours, there were only two Forestry Corp slip-ons which responded to the fire, despite a “beautiful” day on Sunday, January 29, which he said would have been an ideal day for making containment lines, with mild weather and calm skies. 

“It’s too late when you’ve got 60 km winds,” he said, explaining how the fire gained momentum as it burned through the pines, soaking up gas from the trees to create fire balls which eventually “exploded” across Blowering Dam. 

By the time the fires had the attention of fire fighting headquarters, the roads in and out of the Lower Bago were littered with damaged trees and the farmers were frequently running out of water and energy. 

They also had to contend with different agendas from different regions, with one set of instructions coming out of Wagga and another set from Tumut, all from the comfort of “air-conditioned offices,” said Mr Scoullar.

“If they’d got into it in the beginning, this would never have happened,” he said, “They weren’t aggressive enough. They didn’t have the urgency. They took it too cheap.”

At one stage, fire fighters in the Tarcutta area organised a backburn to protect their region, which is just west of the Lower Bago. Mr Scoullar said that backburn headed straight for their community and they were forced to lay in a burn of their own on the eastern side, so that the Tarcutta fires wouldn’t take them out.

“Everybody I talk to is a bit scarred to some extent,” said Mr Willis.

Despite the troubles they’ve faced, both men say they have been entirely impressed with the State and Federal Government responses.

“I’m usually the biggest critic of government you’ll find, but they’ve been bloody brilliant. Especially the Federal government,” said Mr Willis.

“It’s not in our DNA to accept money, but we take it as compensation for our needless pain and suffering.”

Both men said they applied for the $75,000 primary producer grants offered by the Federal Government and had money in the bank in “a week or ten days,” which allowed them to buy feed for their remaining cattle. 

Their complaint lies specifically with the plantation managers and the way they say the plantations have relied on the RFS and volunteer firefighters to protect their assets.

“We are demanding two hundred metre buffer zone/fire breaks around all plantations, along all public roads (both sides) which run through plantations, along all power lines, along all creeks and around any infrastructure on plantations such as phone/radio towers,” wrote the Valley Farmers in their Royal Submission. 

“If this seems extreme, consider that such a break along the power line on the southern edge of the Dunns Road Fire as it was on 28-12-2019 would have stopped the Dunns Road fire!

“These fire breaks must also be made in the same manner through NPWS land. These people (NPWS) have used green ideology as a basis for land management for thirty years, and the 2019-20 fire season has demonstrated the folly and criminal negligence of this approach. 

“Virtually all the fires on the east side of NSW started on NPWS land, which was utterly destroyed, and burnt thousands of neighbors out, for which it seems there are no consequences, and if NPWS are allowed to continue their madness, no lessons will be learned, nor constructive changes made.”

The Valley Farmers are feeling a particular urgency since Forestry Corp announced $10 million worth of seedlings going out this week, with a 40 per cent increase planned for the next crop to go out. Mr Willis and Mr Scoullar say those seedlings are currently being planted in the areas that the Valley Farmers want left as buffers. 

“The Valley Farmers Group is not against pine plantations or the pine industry per se,” they wrote, “But we are adamant that all levels of government must step up and force the industry to become decent citizens and good neighbors, and to end the tragic and destructive greed based practices of the last twenty years, which have directly caused the Dunns Road fire and the destructive horror that it was, and its aftermath still is.”