A single calf walked haltingly across blackened ground on Wednesday morning, and heat was still rising from the ground after fires tore through Yaven Creek on Monday, reducing Andrew Reynold’s grazing land to ashes. Mr Reynolds watched the calf on its journey, checking if infection was setting into the calf’s feet from burns around its hooves, or if singeing along its face was preventing it from seeing clearly.
The calf was one of the animals that veterinarians from the Department of Primary Industries had encouraged Mr Reynolds to watch after they assessed his stock earlier in the week and helped euthanize animals which were badly injured.
Mr Reynolds says he lost thirty head of cattle in the fire. The losses come on top of an already difficult drought year in which Mr Reynolds sold a third of his cattle and half his sheep.
“With the grass, we had, I thought, we’re not going to be too bad until February,” said Mr Reynolds.
“Then it all went up in smoke.”
During the worst of the fire, Mr Reynolds was on the ground, fighting beside his neighbours and the RFS and working together to save as many homes as possible.
“It brings out the best in people,” said Mr Reynolds, looking across the charred landscape to blackened farms across the hills.
“We were out fighting the fire and I did the differential in the Land Cruiser.
“My cousin came over and had it fixed by the next day.
“The generosity nearly makes you cry.”
Mr Reynolds was coming home from Wagga when the fires reached Yaven Creek. He stopped further up the road at a neighbour’s house to help fight the fire there. When the wind changed and started heading north, Mr Reynolds said he had to rush home, where the fire was already spotting.
“It was a death by a thousand cuts,” said Mr Reynolds. “We spent a week waiting and preparing and then it was just everywhere.
“I felt bad being here at my place putting out spots, because it roared up over the valley and burned out those poor buggers up there.”
Mr Reynolds said the fire in Yaven Creek was spotting as far as three kilometres away from the actual fire front. With slip-ons and support from RFS’ few tankers, the farmers and their extended families fought for countless hours.
“It was just bedlam. The fact that we saved our house was a miracle.
“We were tearing from one place to the other, and you were never sure who was where.”
Initially, the farmers fought together, but Mr Reynolds says as the fire was spotting, each man and woman was forced to return home to protect their own property.
“We got to the stage where we thought, ‘The house won’t burn. Everything else is just a plus’,” said Mr Reynolds, remembering the moment where he felt like the worst of the fire was over.
Mr Reynolds’ second property, several hundred acres which he uses for grazing, is still within striking distance of the northern edge of the fire, if winds again begin to blow.
“I’ve lost stock, but there are people who’ve lost a hell of a lot more.”
Mr Reynolds started listing the losses of neighbours, one who lost two houses and 400 sheep, another lost 860 sheep and 20 or 30 cattle. He guesses that stock losses in Yaven Creek could number “well into the hundreds” for cattle and “you could easy say thousands of sheep have been lost. That wouldn’t be an exaggeration.
“It’s pretty traumatic.”
Hot spots continued to flare up for several days and the land still smouldered. Cattle grazed on piles of damp hay which had been spread out and watered down.
“At least they’re getting some nutrients,” Mr Reynolds said with a resigned smile. The farmers were hard at work on Wednesday, feeding what was left of the sheep and cattle in Yaven Creek. Mr Reynolds worked on Wednesday alongside his nephew, a friend, and a good Samaritan who had delivered a truckload of hay.
With no grass left on his land, and few opportunities for agistment, Mr Reynolds is running through his options.
“The cattle are in reasonable condition now, and they’re only going to lose weight,” said Mr Reynolds, “So we’ll have to sell some.
“We’ll wean the calves, sell the Merinos, sell any drys, then we look at Plan A, Plan B, Plan C.
“Do we look at herd reduction? Do we sell the steer calves? Do we try to look for agistment or buying fodder?
“The fact that there’s no grass is the issue. But we were in a drought anyway, and other people are in a drought, so they were in the same boat before this.”
While Mr Reynolds loads and unloads hay, starts to stand up fences, and begins to make plans, others are stepping in to help take care of some of the worst jobs on the farm. Mr Reynolds said he was preparing himself to euthanize and bury stock when a local fencing contractor, Anthony Barr, came over and told Mr Reynolds to keep away from it.
Mr Barr dragged all the dead animals to a pit and organised the area, shooting the remaining animals which couldn’t survive their injuries and covering the pit so Mr Reynolds wouldn’t have to see it.
“I didn’t have to go near that,” says Mr Reynolds.
“I felt an obligation to go do something for someone else and do for them what someone had done for us.”
So Mr Reynolds helped other farmers, euthanizing their livestock and helping bury them.
“It’s not a great job, but it’s got to be a bit better, doing it for someone else,” said Mr Reynolds. “You do it a bit at arm’s length.”
The Reynolds have stock insurance, and they’re making plans for whether to sell or keep their remaining stock. In the meantime, fencing is an issue, both financially and logistically. Mr Reynolds doesn’t yet have any area where he can keep livestock secure, with tens of thousands of dollars worth of damage along kilometres of fencing.
“We don’t have fence insurance,” said Mr Reynolds. “We looked at the policy and thought it looked a bit expensive. But that’s the choice we made.”
Surviving on sandwiches and just a few hours of sleep, farmers in Yaven Creek are still in damage control mode, reacting to immediate needs while trying to plan for the future. The size and speed of these fires has taken everyone by surprise, and resources are still spread too thin to be able to afford landholders any rest.
After contingency plans are made for livestock and fences are rebuilt, Mr Reynolds said he’ll have to look at erosion issues, with no protection for the ground from dry winds which will blow until the winter rains come. Then, there are the dams that are lined by soot. Mr Reynolds said he doesn’t yet know how the carbon in the water will affect livestock or the soil.
“It’s just step by step by step. Everyone here was so surprised by the fire, we’re running around in circles, just doing the best we can,” said Mr Reynolds.
“I’m thinking in a month’s time, I’m just going to sit down and think ‘S**t.’”