Pastoralists in recovery mode after Gascoyne fire

Claire TyrrellCountryman

Pastoralists who this time last year were mopping up after floods are now counting the cost of the most devastating fire to hit the Gascoyne.

Started by lightning, the fires claimed 820,000 hectares of station country and national park, burnt for 37 days and took more than 350 people and at least 30 machines to contain.

The Department of Environment and Conservation poured $2 million into control efforts, making it DEC's biggest single suppression exercise in more than 50 years, even before the cost of volunteers was added.

And pastoralists hold little hope, in spite of repeated calls from the Pastoralists and Graziers Association, of the State Government declaring it a natural disaster.

Gascoyne fire recovery co-ordinator Tom Day said the first priority was getting feed to stock and determining which stations needed hay.

Recovery efforts stepped up last week after the fire was contained within a 1250km boundary that spanned 18 stations.

Mr Day called on the State Government to revise its natural disaster guidelines so pastoralists could access financial support.

He said millions of dollars of roads, fencing, pipelines, troughs and tanks were destroyed by the fire.

Some sheep were lost in the blaze, with numbers yet to be determined.

"Because the damage was all done to private infrastructure, it's not considered (under the criteria) a natural disaster," Mr Day said. "I think damage to shire roads from the fire would exceed $240,000, so that should make it a natural disaster."

The State Government, which was quick to announce support in the case of the Margaret River fires, is leaving the decision on whether the region should be declared a natural disaster to the Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA).

The threshold for a declaration, according to WA Emergency Services Minister Troy Buswell, is $240,000 damage to public infrastructure.

A FESA spokeswoman said on Tuesday it was "continuing to assess the event" in regard to a natural disaster declaration.

While pastoralists highlighted a need for better communication systems, some criticism was levelled at DEC for failing to control the fire earlier.

WA Environment Minister Bill Marmion praised the efforts of DEC, support services and volunteer fire crews. Some firefighters travelled from as far afield as Albany and battled the blazes under extremely challenging conditions.

"There were 22 separate fires started by lightning strikes over several weeks with plenty of fuel due to abundant grass," he said.

"On top of this, much of the area was difficult to access, with extensive sand dunes up to 12m high and boggy conditions caused by isolated downpours from thunderstorms."

Shire president Karl Brandenburg said the fires just added to the rollercoaster ride pastoralists had been on in recent years.

"They've been through droughts, floods and locust plagues and now they've experienced one of the biggest fires the place has seen," he said.

"There was also the cattle trade issue, when the Federal Government took the live cattle trade away."

Mr Brandenburg said the State Government's latest announcement about pastoral rent increases of up to 700 per cent over three years added to the challenges.

"It seems to be one thing after the other for the Gascoyne and there are a lot of people who are upset to the point of depression," he said.

Despite it all, the pastoralists _Countryman _ spoke to last week were determined to carry on with rebuilding efforts after the droughts and the floods and now the fires.

Within the next fortnight, the shire is meeting DEC and FESA to discuss the financial impact of the fires.

Department of Agriculture and Food officers are assisting pastoralists in their assessment of the impact of the fires on pastoral infrastructure, livestock and pastures and the State Government has announced rent relief for affected pastoralists.

The previous largest fire in the Gascoyne was in 1963 when about 160,000ha of pastoral land were affected.

DEC said the Gascoyne fires were its second largest suppression effort to the Dwellingup fires of 1961 that claimed 440,000ha.

Last year bushfires burnt through more than one million hectares on the Nullarbor.

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