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Fighting fires with community resilience

Western Australian dairy farmers Wally and Juliet Bettink are picking up the pieces after bushfires destroyed 90 per cent of their pastures and tens of kilometres of fencing – and they have strong community support.

When a lightning storm ripped through Northcliffe, 350 kilometres south of Perth, on the last weekend of January and set the dry landscape ablaze, Wally didn’t think twice about leaping onto the fire trucks with his fellow volunteers at the Northcliffe Volunteer Fire Brigade, just as he has for the better part of 25 years.

For two days the Northcliffe native helped to battle flames that would eventually claim around 100,000 hectares of state forest and private land – including the Bettinks’ property and several of the seven other dairy farms in the area.

“I haven’t seen anything like of it, the way it burnt,” Wally said. “Even gravel stones were burning. Paddocks we’d already cut for hay that didn’t have anything on them, the fire just shot straight over the top of them.”

Wally was 15 kilometres from his farm trying to protect a fire line when he was alerted to danger back home. He arrived with fire equipment to find the damage already underway: half the property burning, but the animals were in safe hands.

“The cows were the first thing we looked after. We put the herd underneath the irrigation pivot so that they were all safe,” said Wally’s wife Juliet, referring to a 30-hectare irrigated area that acted as protection for the 300-cow dairy herd.

The Bettinks worked into the early hours of the morning and thought they had control of the fire. But later in the day the winds changed and the fire returned, burning through the remaining pasture in about 10 minutes. While the milking herd were safe under the irrigation pivot, the fire went up the middle of the farm to where a small number of non-milking cows and a bull were housed. Luckily, the animals escaped with only minor burns.

“We’ve had a corner or paddock burnt out before,” Wally said. “But I’ve never seen a fire do a 180-degree turn and we’ve had to go from mopping up to defending. It was just so hot, dry and quick that we had no way to defend it.”

Miraculously, the family house was spared and the Bettinks lost just one silage stack, thanks to efforts by the local fire brigade, helicopters and volunteers.

The Bettinks’ four children, Jimmy, Hayley, Anne and Kylie, all came home to pitch in too.

“Your family’s very important,” Wally said. “That’s the sort of thing that can relieve you so you can tackle other pressing problems as we try to recover.”

It’s now a matter of rebuilding, and, with ongoing community goodwill, there’s no shortage of help. The Northcliffe community is a tightknit one, and its 400 residents have banded together.

“We were having coffee the other morning and a guy turned up with an esky full of freshly butchered meat and said ‘you don’t have time to do this so I did it for you’,” Wally said.

“People have been so generous,” added Juliet. “We’ve had a lot of hay and feed donations, and a few farmers have just turned up to help with fencing. Everyone has been checking in on each other. We have a very good community spirit in our town.”

That includes care for the animals.

“We put a call out for nappy rash cream because that’s the best stuff for the burns to the cows. We’ve finished up with acres of the stuff,” Wally said.

“All of these care packages addressed to ‘The Bull care of the Northcliffe Visitors Centre’ arrived. He’s been sent more nappy rash cream than I’ve had hot dinners.”

Wally jokes, but he reckons humour plays a part in the recovery.

“You’ve got to be able to laugh,” he said. “It’ll be a long, slow haul but we’ll get there.”

It’s a logistical challenge to return to what the Bettinks describe as ‘normal dairy farming’. Without mains power for 16 days, they relied on a backup generator to continue milking, and began rebuilding fences.

“We were still putting out spot fires every day for the first week. All of the fences were gone. And of course we still have to milk the cows,” said Juliet.

Northcliffe is also in repair mode.

“We’re meeting regularly to help get the town back on its feet. It takes a fair effort to coordinate,” said Juliet, who is a farmer representative on the Shire of Manjimup’s Recovery Committee, which is working to bring in support from Bunbury and potentially the Victorian-based BlazeAid crew, who helped during the Black Saturday fires.

The day after the fire left the Bettink property, Wally was back helping neighbours. He admits it’s not easy to leave his own property while there’s still a risk, but it’s part of the bigger picture.

“The fire line is a great equaliser; we’re all the same on the fire line, fighting a common cause,” he said. “It’s about community volunteering. Everybody gives up their time and it’s only fair that everyone gets involved.”

For Wally, who also coaches junior basketball and volunteers at the local footy club, the recovery process depends on teamwork – something he likens to sports.

“Football’s a great example of that. You can have the moggiest bunch of fellas running around on the oval but if they work well together and you put them in a position where they’re best suited, it’s amazing what you can do to get a team up and win.

“It’s the same with these teams that come to help with the fire recovery. It’s how you manage and work them that determines whether they’ll be useful. Whether it’s sports or on the farm, you can’t do it all on your own.”

And, proving that life continues after the flames, Wally’s looking forward to seeing how the fire affects one of his other passions: the native orchids that dot the local landscape.

“There’d be several hundred different types of native orchids out there,” he said. “A lot of this bush needs to burn to regenerate. There’ll be a boom year for orchids because of this, and it’ll be interesting to get into areas that don’t normally burn and see what pops up in the spring. That’s a nice thing to have out of this.”