Blazes wreak havoc in pastoralist country

Kate Matthews and AAPThe West Australian

More resources are needed to help fight pastoral fires according property owners caught in last week's devastating fires in the Mid West.

The fires, which started on December 1, burnt for nine days and destroyed more than 150,000 hectares of prime cattle and sheep grazing land through the Murchison, the Upper Gascoyne region down to Yalgoo, about 200km east of Geraldton.

Gabyon station owners Michael Trant and Gemma Cripps were hardest hit and estimated 70,000ha was burnt, along with fences and possibly 4000 ewes.

The couple said resources were scarce on the ground during the early stages of the fire and more FESA staff were needed.

"It was scary to think that no-one was coming to help when Geraldton is just 200km away," Ms Cripps said.

While FESA had deployed a grader and loader on the first day, and a helicopter on day two, there were only three fire units to fight the fire.

It wasn't until the third day that Mt Magnet fire volunteers brought in water units.

Ms Cripps said the volunteers did a great job, including one who used his week off from the mines to help fight the fire.

The fire also raised other concerns, including the lack of working UHF radios in FESA vehicles and aircraft, constant changing of incident controllers and bureaucratic reporting wasting manpower and machinery needed at the front line.

Mr Trant said at one stage they were fighting two fires on the station at opposite ends.

"Without FESA paying for dozers, graders, loaders, food and the water tank, we wouldn't have had a chance but that gear is no good if you can't get a water cart to back them up," he said.

There were also problems with air intelligence. Mr Trant said without neighbour Rossco Foulkes-Taylor helping to guide volunteers and being able to estimate distances accurately, there would have been more damage.

The fires came in the midst of pastoralists enjoying one of their best seasons with plenty of feed after years of drought.

Pastoralists and Graziers Association spokesman Edgar Richardson said it was too early to count livestock losses but estimated the cost to the industry would be in the millions.

"Whatever figure you come up with, it is probably not going to be enough because of the potential the season had to provide people with financial gain," Mr Richardson said.

A FESA spokesman said to fight pastoral fires the aim was to build containment lines.

"With this one, they saved Gabyon and Tardie homesteads," he said.

FESA provided three helicopters, from which air surveillance was directed, a fixed-wing aircraft for mapping, nine graders, six loaders and three dozers to build containment lines for the fires.

FESA did not comment on the other issues.

Pastoralists have been told there will be a debrief with FESA staff after the Christmas break.

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