WITH the State’s largest bushfire still not controlled and expected to burn for three months, farmers, the Manjimup Shire Council, government and other agencies have rallied to help Northcliffe beef and dairy farmers impacted by the fire.
A stock fodder register was initiated last week by local farmer John Della Gola whose property on the Pemberton-Northcliffe Road five kilometres out of Northcliffe is one of two local storage points where donated hay can be collected by farmers whose own stock feed has been burnt.
Department of Food and Agriculture (DAFWA) and WAFarmers Lower South West zone president Tony Practico are also organising fodder registers and the Southern Forests Food Council, some of whose members are in the fire-affected area, is now co-ordinating the fodder registers, transport and supply.
It is hoped that by the end of this week, with the proposed lifting of local road closures, that semi-trailer loads of hay can be delivered direct to the farms needing it most.
A register of fencing materials is also being set up this week as the Northcliffe fire operation moves towards recovery mode after 11 days of emergency fire warnings and more than 91,000 hectares – mostly Karri forest – destroyed within a fire perimeter stretching some 364 kilometres.
At this stage, Manjimup shire will co-ordinate the fencing materials register and it may well be expanded to include other vital farm supplies, like poly pipe and fittings needed to keep remaining pasture irrigated.
It is hoped that “grey nomads” and farmers from other areas will volunteer to help Northcliffe farmers rebuild fences and repair damaged farm infrastructure.
The Northcliffe fire has been declared a natural disaster, making Federal and State Government funds available to the shire and to farmers to help replace damaged infrastructure.
However, it is understood that while relief assistance may be available to replace boundary fences, it will not cover internal farm fencing destroyed in the fire – estimated to be more than 1000 kilometres.
A proposed local Business Continuity Committee involving the shire, government agencies and various farming group representatives, was scheduled to hold its first meeting in Northcliffe this week.
The aim of the committee, a shire initiative, is to establish what assistance is needed to keep the farms, particularly the dairy farms where cows have to be milked daily, operating and how it can best be provided.
Five of the region’s eight dairy farms have been impacted by the fire, according to DAFWA Manjimup area manager Ian Guthridge who has checked 28 of about 40 properties in the fire area with a department vet.
Three of the five, all south of the Northcliffe township and bordering Karri forest, have been significantly impacted with much of their dry pasture, fences and some hay destroyed, Mr Guthridge said.
“Two farms lost two-thirds of their dry pasture and will be relying on hay to feed non-milking stock and to supplement remaining green feed for milking herds,” he said.
The other two properties, including the region’s best known and largest dairy Bannister Downs, suffered relatively minor damage with some fencing lost.
“We still haven’t got around to all the properties yet because we can only get into areas that the incident management team allow us into,” Mr Guthridge said.
“Some areas are still not deemed safe enough for us to get to.”
There were no reports of stock losses, although there were reports of cattle missing, he said.
DAFWA veterinarian Tom Hollingsworth said only three cows with minor burns on their udders had been found and treated.
So far more than 1700 cows have been checked.
Ninety beef cattle from another fire-affected Northcliffe property were trucked out on Sunday to Busselton on agistment for three months with Mitchell’s Transport donating the stock transport.
However, the region’s dairy herds are calving at this time of year and farmers are reluctant to move them because of the high risk of stressed cows aborting.
A member of the DAFWA farmer liaison team, Jason Dearle, said he had been “acting as the farmer’s legs” picking up and delivering supplies, including vital diesel fuel needed to keep farm generators and irrigators operating with Western Power infrastructure severely damaged and more than 80 power poles destroyed.
Other locals have also been obtaining permits and taking food, fuel and veterinary supplies out to farms inside the danger area road-block cordon.
Initially, under the voluntary evacuation procedures in place after Northcliffe township was first threatened on Sunday, February 1, farmers who left their property for any reason were not allowed back into the danger zone.
A shire-managed permit system was put in place late last week allowing farmers and farm workers in and out of the area, but at that stage people had to go to the evacuation centre in Pemberton each day to argue their case for a permit to re-enter the area.
In one instance, a woman was allowed through a road block to take her 15-year-old son to work at Bannister Downs Farm in the morning but when she attempted to return that evening to collect him she was not allowed through.
The boy had to be driven to the roadblock by another farm worker.
After the permit issue was raised by an angry community information meeting in Northcliffe hall last Sunday, a recovery centre and permit application point was set up at Northcliffe tourist information centre the following day and the road blocks relocated closer to the fire ground, alleviating some of the objections.
DAFWA southern region manager Neil Guise said part of the a crucial farmer liaison and support role Manjimup DAFWA officers had played since early last week involved negotiating access for milk tankers to the restricted entry zone.
“It was important to liaise with the incident management team to negotiate permits for essential access for milk tankers so that the eight dairies in the area could have their milk transported,” Mr Guise said.
Manjimup Shire president Wade DeCampo confirmed after the final Northcliffe community meeting on Monday that the permit access system had “provided the most angst” during the bushfire emergency.
“We understand some residents need to get back to their property to attend to stock, but we don’t want to find ourselves before a coronial inquest because we let somebody back in,” Mr DeCampo said.
John Kilrain, produce co-ordinator for the Southern Forests Food Council – a Royalties for Regions-funded project to promote agriculture and grow the value off it within the Manjimup, Pemberton, Northcliffe and Walpole regions – said he was glad to co-ordinate the fodder register.
“Our involvement comes as we have lots of members in Northcliffe and we need to look after them,” Mr Kilrain said on Tuesday.
“We have been working closely with John Della Gola and Les Brown (Northcliffe residents) to make sure hay is available to all effected landowners and hay is available from both of these guys now.
“We would like to thank those many readers and listeners out there that gave us an extensive list of potential hay donors and transport companies that have donated time to help these farmers in their time of need.
“We are still keen to hear of potential donors and transport companies prepared to assist with freight.
“Unfortunately, these producers have been hit pretty hard and we need to do everything possible to help them on the road to recovery as quick as possible.”
Paul Bawden, Manjimup shire’s disaster co-ordinator, said it was hoped that rural supplies businesses, fencing materials manufacturers and the public would help with donations of rolls of fencing wire, droppers and posts.
“We have the hay (register) under control now so we are starting to look at the other areas where farmers will need help and fencing to stop stock wandering is the next priority,” Mr Bawden said.
Bunbury horse feed suppliers Wight & Emmett is one of the rural businesses helping Northcliffe farmers.
James Searle of Wight & Emmett said he had organised a 30-tonne truck load of hay to be delivered to Northcliffe today, Thursday, after phoning suppliers and other companies he dealt with.
St Allard Lodge and Semini Custom Feeds in Margret River; Wight & Emmett, MGIB Insurance, T & V Fencing and Loves Bus Company, Bunbury; Animal Health Solutions, Perth; and Western Hay, Bindoon, had contributed, Mr Searle said.
A stock feed and agistment register has also been set up for farmers impacted by a bushfire in the Boddington area last week.
Sarah Easton of Landmark Boddington is the contact on 0437 906 510.
Two DAFWA veterinary officers are helping with assessments of livestock on 32 properties impacted by that fire.
Six stock losses have been reported so far, a DAFWA spokeperson said.
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