RFS units spread thinly on the fire ground mean farmers have to fight their own battles

Inferno: Firefighters at the massive Guyra Road fire at Ebor. Photo: Fire and Rescue NSW Armidale
Inferno: Firefighters at the massive Guyra Road fire at Ebor. Photo: Fire and Rescue NSW Armidale

When bushfire crews are stretched, when equipment fails and communications are severely tested, that's when it becomes a fight or flee situation for many landowners.

For many, it means gathering together their equipment and with their neighbours defending their own, and sometimes public infrastructure, in the form of the old Styx River Bridge.

RFS zone manager for New England Superintendent Steve Mepham said the RFS had been on their feet and not had any respite since August 5.

"Our crews have been run ragged 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he said.

"Absolutely everyone is mindful about what damage can be done by the fire, and everyone is chipping in to do as much as they can, trying to control these fires.

"And there's an absolute plethora of farmers [who don't belong to the RFS] that are doing that, and they're most welcome. They talk to our people on the ground and work side-by-side, and a lot of the fires we would not have contained without their help."

If there's a fire on everyone just seems to turn up. We just ring people and a lot seem to turn up.

Jeogla RFS captain Roy Robertson

Leonie Hawkins' husband, Phil Duddy, is a farmer, and they were busy with fires burning to the north, west and east of their property. Leonie is also the president of Guyra CWA Evening Branch.

"My husband has been out fighting fires for 10-days straight, and we're feeding cattle every second day, like most farmers are," she said.

"He'll get up really early in the morning, whip out and feed the cattle; any other work that needs to be done on the farm - I'm sorry, that's just on hold.

"But he's not the only one. Most of the farmers in our district are doing the same thing. They're getting up in the morning, doing what they can get done, and then they're off to fight the fires."

Leonie said she was not trying to detract from the terrific job the RFS had done.

"I think that the landholders out there also risking their lives to save their neighbours and people down the road, well, they also need a little bit of recognition too I think," she said.

We're a resilient lot, we'll keep going. Because that's what we do - we keep going.

Leonie Hawkins

"I put the call out a minute ago because there are some people down the road who rang me. Phil's out there now and told them to ring me and get more people out there.

"So I've just rung around and everybody's said 'Yep - right, we're on our way.' So, it's not just Phil, it's everyone and it's all done on Messenger."

Jeogla RFS captain Roy Robertson said they have had bushfires burning near the Styx River since September.

"That was when the first fires were at Sandy Creek," he said.

"Farmers have done a fair bit of firefighting. Some of them put a big, long back-burn on, I think it was 26 kilometres in that area.

"Then, as those fires come up to your property, you're basically doing by yourself."

He said the RFS crews did not have a lot of support because of the sheer number of fires burning.

"They're spread very thin. The Parks and Wildlife are probably the ones doing the lot of it because most of the country is parks and forest," Roy said.

"The other night there was a lightning strike in Styx Park and all the locals just rallied and put it out.

"If there's a fire on everyone just seems to turn up. We just ring people and a lot seem to turn up."

Roy said when their tanker truck broke down, it was impossible to get onto anyone to report it because the answering machine was on all day.

"I don't even know if it's fixed now. No-one's rung me about it," he said.

"It was about 10 locals with two private water carts who put out the fire on the old Styx River Bridge.

"We wet down the area, and I was surprised by what council didn't do there actually."

Perhaps Leonie Hawkins summed it all up the best when she said she knew farmers would keep going.

"We're a resilient lot, we'll keep going. Because that's what we do - we keep going," she said.