Northcliffe still blazing

Rueben HaleThe West Australian
Brad ThompsonThe West Australian

One of WA's biggest dairies has narrowly escaped disaster but is not out of danger, with fires raging around Northcliffe as Countryman went to press on Tuesday.

The dairy industry-focused town has about 400 town-based residents, and more than 100 small to large farms.

The fire first broke out from a lightning strike in the area on Sunday. Since then it has burnt through more than 25,000ha of land.

Local residents have been issued with an evacuation order and it remains likely farmers would need to move livestock as the winds pushed the fire in a westerly direction.

Homes in the Northcliffe town site were declared indefensible by the Department of Fire and Emergency Services.

A huge fire-fighting effort diverted the flames from Bannister Downs but smaller dairy farms in the district have not been so lucky.

Bannister Downs owner Sue Daubney said the situation was extremely stressful, but the dairy 10km east of Northcliffe had been able to keep operating amid the fire storm.

"The fire is very big and very out of control, but everybody is doing the best they can to help," she said.

"We are safe and we are business as usual, but we are in a very dangerous place and it can change in a minute.

"We are staying calm and we'll react as necessary."

The fire has burned through a corner of Bannister Downs and the property remains at risk if there is a shift in wind direction.

Mrs Daubney said the help and support from local Department of Agriculture and Food WA and the Department of Parks and Wildlife staff had been outstanding. She also paid tribute to the efforts of volunteers, DFES and police in protecting lives and property.

Bannister Downs has continued to truck milk out of Northcliffe with the cooperation of authorities and has an evacuation plan in place if conditions change.

There are six homes on the property, many of occupied by elderly members of the Daubney family.

Mrs Daubney and husband Mat refused to think of losing the dairy founded by the family in 1924.

"You don't think like that. I got the kids off the farm, we worked out exit plans for our elderly aunts and uncles and moved the cows into the paddock as far as possible from the fire face. We are still milking morning and night," she said.

"We are dealing with about 25,000-30,000 litres-a-day and we have to milk the cows. It will be the very last thing we stop doing and only if we are on our knees because it causes too much damage to the cows not to milk."

Ms Daubney said the scenario of 2500 stampeding cows would "not be good" and the logistics of moving such a large herd would be a challenging task.

The fire has taken a heavier toll on nearby dairy farms. About 90 per cent of the Bettink family's farm was burned out, but their house, sheds and dairy herd were still standing on Tuesday.

Hayley Bettink said her parents Wally and Julie had no option but to stay to protect about 500 cattle, horses and other animals. They gathered the stock into a patch of green around the farm house close to an irrigation pivot.

"It has come at us from all directions, our entire farm is enclosed by bush," Ms Bettink said.

Ms Bettink said the intense heat appeared to have burned the udders of some cows, but the herd was relatively unscathed. The family believes a bull charged down a fence to save some cows trapped in a paddock close to the fire front.

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