Alberta ranch historian and author returns from helping out with wildfire relief effort in Australia
By Tim Kalinowski
Ag-Matters recently held an email interview with Alberta ranch historian and author D. Larraine Andrews who was in mandatory quarantine after her return from Australia in March, where she was helping out with wildfire relief efforts there. These are her impressions of the devastation she witnessed there, and, in particular, the impact on farmers and livestock producers.
Ag-Matters: What were you doing in Australia and why did you feel it was important to go?
Andrews: I originally planned this as a hiking trip to do two different walking tours, one east of Melbourne, near Bright, Victoria, and the other one west of Melbourne in the Grampians. I am a long distance walker and I wanted to escape our March here in Alberta, which I maintain is often the worst month of the entire winter! I have good friends at Wagga Wagga in New South Wales as well as farming friends at Nevertire, NSW and I also planned to take the time to visit them while I was so close. Unfortunately, the fires that occurred in Victoria and NSW put an end to my hiking trips. I already had the air in place, all the plans to meet my friends in Wagga were finally organized (after months of getting the dates to work) and a trip to Uluru was already booked. So I decided to try and find some place to volunteer in the rural community where I could help for the chunk of time left open by not doing the walking trips.
I go back 42 years with Australia, when I travelled in 1978 as an agricultural exchange student with the International Agricultural Exchange Association. I went to Western Australia to work on a very large sheep farm SE of Perth and made many lifelong friends in the process. That trip led to a repeat visit to work in a shearing shed on the same property and triggered an enduring love affair with the country. Suffice it to say I have been back more times than I can count to travel and visit friends. It has come to feel like a second home to me and I wanted to give something back after such a huge crisis. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to do that.
My Wagga friend actually put me on to an organization called BlazeAid. https://blazeaid.com.au/ The organization was established in 2009 by Kevin and Rhonda Butler whose farm was devastated by the Victoria bushfires of Black Saturday on February 8, 2009.
During these fires, 173 people were killed and hundreds injured plus a huge loss of property. The Butlers lost most of their fences and within a week, with the assistance of family, friends and local volunteers, their fences were rebuilt. Out of this experience, the couple started BlazeAid where volunteers come together to help with fence rebuilding and debris cleanup following bushfire disasters (bushfires are recurring events in Australia) as well as damage caused by floods and cyclones. They are a very well organization at this point, having dealt with many disasters over the years. Camps are established close to damaged areas and volunteers come together to provide as much time and assistance as they can spare – so volunteers are constantly rotating in and out of the camps. They bring their own camping accommodations including RVs and tents, and are provided with three meals a day (by BlazeAid) in exchange for their work. Like me, most volunteers are seniors since seniors tend to have the time and resources to help out.
Working together as a team we accomplished a lot each day without the need to tackle jobs that were obviously for younger types than us. Debris clean up and threading wire can be handled by most people! Even seniors! They never asked us to do jobs we weren’t comfortable with. There were a large number of camps established in response to the latest bushfire emergencies in almost every state of Australia, with the bulk located in NSW.
Until recently, the organization has been financed entirely with donations, a remarkable feat. They also provide fencing materials to the local farmers where the volunteers go to help rebuild.
Ag-Matters: What were your first impressions of the fire area?
Andrews: I volunteered at a camp called Tumbarumba in NSW. The camp was newly established in early February not long before my arrival on March 8, 2020 and I was welcomed with open arms. I was assured my Canadian citizenship presented no impediment to volunteering, the insurance all worked and there was months of work ahead of them there. They weren’t going to run out before I arrived!
By a strange coincidence, the camp was about an hour’s drive from Wagga, and so after my visit there, my good friends Kirsten and Pete drove me out and got me settled in. My friends were even lending me a tent to use. Imagine my relief when we discovered some units brought in from a mining camp in Western Australia (for use by seasonal blueberry pickers) had been set up a stone’s throw from the camp headquarters. (Think Atco trailers!). And the shire was offering them at half price to volunteers who wanted to use them. Given the cold nights in store for me with the Australian autumn moving in, that was a no-brainer – the tent went back to Wagga!
The town itself had been spared any damage by a mere shift in the wind which happened, literally at the last possible minute, as the fires were raging in early January. So there wasn’t any evidence of damage on the drive from Wagga. However just southeast of town, on Tooma Drive, the extensive damage became very evident along the road and up on the hills where the fire had exploded uncontrolled. By the time I arrived the paddocks were all green with the new grass growing following recent, plentiful rainfall so the landscape looked relatively unscathed. It was rather deceiving to see all the green until your eyes wandered up to the surrounding hills. The area has a lot of eucalypts plus commercial pine plantations. Huge blackened trunks bordering the road had been pushed up by bull dozers and entire hills were burnt out with only scorched tree trunks still standing. Entire pine plantations had been gutted and were black and totally burnt out. The pine timber is still useful if harvested within 12 months, so the area was full of logging trucks hauling to the local mills near Tumbarumba. The area also hosts small vineyards – by pure whim of the wind some were completely wiped out, yet over the next hill, others stretched out green and lush. Although that too was deceiving since the grapes are subject to smoke damage and will probably be unusable.
On the first farm where I went with a BlazeAid team, only the mud brick house with a sprinkler system on the roof, had been saved. It was completely surrounded by burnt forest, and within 30 metres of the house all the sheds had been destroyed. There was also extensive damage to the fences, although they tend to use metal posts there so we were often able to salvage some of these for re-use. Many wooden posts were burnt out and had to be pulled up and replaced. Some places, where the fire had passed through very quickly and were basically ground fires, the new grass was growing and only the bottom of the trees had been scorched. The most remarkable thing to see was the regrowth that was filling the forests. The eucalyptus regenerate very quickly, sending out shoots all along the trunk. Not all the shoots will survive, but the rate of regeneration was stunning to see, considering the fires had occurred barely two and a half months prior. Regrowth was also happening all along the forest floor with ferns and other plants shooting up after the recent rains.
Ag-Matters: What impact have these wildfires had on local farmers and agriculture?
Andrews: It is impossible to quantify the effects really. Some farmers were spared much damage, while those next door were wiped out, losing houses, sheds, fences and stock. One local farmer lost 2,000 head of sheep while others were OK. The immediate problem was feeding stock since all the grass was gone. Because of its proximity to the area, Wagga had actually been established as an evacuation centre for displaced people and stock that needed feed during the height of the emergency. But with the grass coming back, this situation had been substantially eased.
One of the big problems farmers are now facing is the astronomical rise in the price of replacement livestock since there is a shortage across a huge area of NSW and Victoria where so many animals were lost. Locals told me that prices had already tripled in the Tumbarumba area when I was there in March 2020.
The January 2020 issue of the Tumbarumba Times quoted initial loss estimates of 20,000 head for the southern part of the state of NSW, which was particularly hard hit. Of course these were just initial estimates just after the fires (which started on New Year’s Eve) had raged through. Final numbers will not be available until more firm data can begin to be tallied once aid requests can be assessed. The maximum amount most farmers could claim in that area was $75,000 (about $65,000 CDN) and some of the local farmers I talked to said they had qualified for the full amount.
There was also the collateral damages to the pine plantations and the vineyards mentioned above. The pine timber had to be quickly salvaged (at a much reduced value) before it deteriorated and if grape crops survived they were almost all smoke damaged and potentially of no use.
Ag-Matters: The fires have also been devastating to nature in general, I understand. What is your impressions there? Describe the scene.
Andrews: The issue of wildlife loss is also unquantifiable. We saw many burnt carcasses of deer and kangaroos as we worked along the fence lines, but we also saw healthy looking live kangaroos and brumbies (wild horses) in the forest, drawn by the new grass and water in livestock dams refilled with the recent rainfall. One of the locals said he had found 20 dead brumbies in a circle on his land that had been trapped by the flames. One amazing thing was the amount of bird life we saw and heard as we worked, including many small song birds and beautiful black cockatoos, which are not often seen at the best of times. The bird song was amazing and totally unexpected given the news we in Canada had heard about the decimation of the birds during the height of the fires along the eastern seaboard in late 2019, complete with stories of birds falling out of the skies. It was extremely heartening to see and hear them but of course the devastation was vast over an enormous swath of the country, and it is safe to say thousands and thousands of birds and other ground animals like wombats, that couldn’t outrun the fires, were wiped out in very large numbers. Many, many bee hives were also lost in this area alone.
Ag-Matters: What do you think Canadian producers or others here in Canada can do to help?
Andrews: Locals told me that the best thing Canadian producers and others can do is to consider donating to organizations like BlazeAid. In the Tumbarumba area alone, 100 properties had registered for help from the organization with only a fraction of these jobs considered complete by the time I was forced to leave on March 17. I had to return to Canada as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and travel advisories issued by our Canadian government said to get home while we still could. There is obviously much work left to do and Tumbarumba is only one of many camps still up and operating as of March 31.
However, virus concerns have meant the camps will no longer accept new volunteers and once the current contingent is finished their time, the camps will be forced to close for the winter. Until the situation changes on the virus front, which, as we all know, won’t be anytime soon, that will be it for camps in the area. With winter on its way and the combination of short days and cold (they do get some snow in the area in the winter) nothing will happen now anyway until the spring.
Ag-Matters: Do you think, given your understanding of history, Alberta has ever faced such a devastating challenge? What lessons do you think can be learned here in Canada from the Australia situation?
Andrews: It’s interesting to think of similar Alberta challenges. Many of our fire disasters have been in National Parks like Waterton Lakes National Park in 2017 or in Ft. McMurray in 2016 so they didn’t have huge implications for the agricultural community. Having said that, 2017 fires along the Porcupine Hills, devastated winter pastures for many of the ranches in the area, although stock losses weren’t high. In the early days of ranching and farming in the province, prairie wild fires were absolutely devastating in their destruction – there was nothing to stop them once they got going and they went for miles, destroying everything in their path. Any histories or contemporary accounts of the period consistently contain references to the terrifying wild fires. These days we have well-established communications systems and rural fire services with big equipment to fight such outbreaks, which weren’t available in the early days.
Some of our most devastating losses were triggered during our winters, particularly the Big Die-up in 1886/1887 and the other big killing one (without a name!) in 1906/1907, that are legends in our farming/ranching history. Stock losses during these winters reached colossal proportions, (some sources quote up to 90 per cent), primarily due the open range ranching practices that were gradually abandoned for ranching techniques that recognized the need to adapt to the harsh environment. No longer did ranchers leave their stock to wander huge tracts of land in search of food, hoping for a Chinook to swoop in and clear the snow. Bulls were no longer allowed to run free all year, so breeding times were controlled and cows weren’t dropping calves in the middle of winter, almost guaranteeing the loss of both cow and calf. They started putting up feed for contingencies and built fences to control their stock. Gradually we learned. But in the process, farmers and ranchers reacted with unbelievable tenacity and resilience – they adapted and moved on to adjust to the realities of Southern Alberta winters. We have faced similar challenges with drought too, the latest examples being the last two summer seasons. Farming techniques gradually changed to prevent the loss of top soil and to preserve moisture.
Ag-Matters: Any further thoughts?
Andrews: I certainly have no regrets for embarking on this adventure even though it was quickly cut short by world events well beyond anyone’s anticipation just a few short weeks before. I still had close to a week left that I had planned to continue volunteering before I moved on to the “holiday” part of my trip. During my time there I met some amazing volunteers, farmers and locals all dealing with a catastrophic event and just pushing forward to get through it and hopefully come out better on the other side. To think they are now hit with the pandemic as well is really hard to contemplate. But just like the agricultural and rural community here, they are certainly a resilient bunch and that will carry them a long way to deal with the challenges ahead.