The road to recovery

Corrina RidgwayThe West Australian

Farmers who have been affected by the fires that ravaged Esperance's agricultural districts feel as if they're starting over.

They're fast gathering stock and doggedly moving into the next phase of dealing with blackened paddocks that resemble 'new block' country.

Many producers have already had local insurance assessors out to investigate damages and most claims are well underway.

The cover is proving to be bittersweet though, with crop insurance estimates in most cases well under what the record crops were actually yielding.

The next step for many is to address the loss of precious topsoil as the razed soils begin to shift.

Shorty Morcombe lost 295 hectares of standing wheat at Scaddan. The fire laid waste to everything bar his house and a few pieces of machinery.

Mr Morcombe has already started to address efforts to halt wind loss on the fragile sand over clay soils on his 1200 hectares of arable land.

"I couldn't just sit down, I needed something to do. It was a bit hard to walk out the next day and see it was already starting to move," he said.

The young farmer has already sown more than 100 hectares of paddock with a mix of 20kg barley and 5kg millet.

"The barley will hopefully protect the later germinating millet and let me get some cover established," Mr Morcombe said.

Other producers are biding their time, simply stating that it depended on the ground itself as to what would be the best way forward for each property.

Infrastructure, specifically the cleaning up of charred debris and removal of kilometres of twisted fencing, is also a great concern.

Across the road from Mr Morcombe, Mick Leibeck lost 800 hectares on his family's Leibeck Rd block.

Mr Leibeck said his next steps will be to finish off harvest.

"I've got 1100 hectares left on the home block that I will get off as as quick as possible. Then a group of farmers up here are going to get together and do a property per day cleanup of some of the farms. It's an awesome community up here so we wont be short of help," he said.

Hayden and Deb Thomas lost almost everything except their house on their 2428 hectare property. They will also need to remove about 50km of fencing.

Rodney Locke and Tanya Hill have already pulled up half of the 24km of fencing damaged by the coastal Merivale fire that had raged to the east of Esperance.

"We lost 100 ha of pasture and 24 km of boundary fence. At the moment we have bulls in yards that we are hand feeding and watering because we don't have a ull paddock. Because we don't have boundary fences, it affects our rotation and we could possibly run out of feed," Mr Locke said.

Strict road closures in the area has meant that the property has ran out of diesel and is still without power. But he said his main issue now is communication.

"We've been in complete isolation as far as communication is concerned, which makes it really hard to run a business. The lack of assistance from Telstra in stepping forwards with alternatives has been the one thing that's most frustrating out of everything," Mr Locke said.

For Phillip Morcombe, issues will include replacing everyday workshop items that allow him to carry out basic operations.

He lost everything except his house in the blaze, which also took the lives of about 1200 sheep and 663 hectares of crop on the Scaddan property.

"It depends on the rain, but I'm hoping to have the sheep back for winter. I'm also hoping some of the pasture seed bank has survived - I've always sprayed minimally so there should be some seed base of weed seeds left," he said.

Mr Leibeck counts himself lucky that his quick, albeit shaky actions saw his mother and father make safety before the fire front claimed his childhood home.

"The last time I saw the place like this was as a new ground block as a child, but I've told my son that in 12 months' time, he won't know the place. It's absolutely awful to see your roots destroyed like this but we will rebuild," he said.

He has no doubt the community will be there for each other in the months to come.

"The community should be proud of how they are handling it all," he said.

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