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Both farms turned into firegrounds

· Bushfires

UPDATE # 1: The Currowan bushfire, which has been burning out of control on the NSW South Coast for weeks, struck Narrawilly and Croobyar farms on Saturday, 4 January 2020, with unimaginable ferocity.

Narrawilly farm (Princes Highway, Milton) and Croobyar farm (Ringland Lane, Croobyar) had been significantly damaged by bushfires a few days earlier. Like a zombie in a horror film that will not die, the Currowan fire returned to attack us again and again.

On Tuesday, 31 December 2019, during the early afternoon, huge flames swept out of Little Forest, to our west, jumped across the highway onto Narrawilly farm, then headed north east towards Lake Conjola where it devastated and terrified. That same Tuesday afternoon, the swamp on Narrawilly's northern edge caught alight, as well as its paddocks adjacent to the highway. Rob, with the help of our incredible neighbours, struggled for hours to contain its spread. Sleep was not an option.

In the morning, at the dawn of the new year, we saw through the haze the fire's impact: farmland and surrounding landscape, along with its wildlife (birds, reptiles, small mammals, insects), had been incinerated.

The fire in the farm's swamp is burning still.

Four days later, on a blisteringly hot Saturday, a new firefront would arrive: to Croobyar in the afternoon and Narrawilly in the evening, turning both farms into firegrounds.

Some pieces of good news:

  • Croobyar and Narrawilly milking herds, heifers and calves were unharmed on the day.
  • Rob, Carey-Ann, Hunter and Pumpkin (Narrawilly farm's ginger felines) are safe and uninjured.
  • Major infrastructure and equipment (dairy plants, tractors, utes) are intact.
  • Our incredible teams on both farms -- Andrew and Paula, Steve, Young Michael, Louise and David (along with remote support and logistics from Carey-Ann's family and friends in Sydney and beyond) -- worked tirelessly to get us through the worst of the fires. Right now, we are busy repairing what we can while also prepping for the return of the next firefront. The crisis is not over yet. Friday is forecast to bring gusting winds to the south coast.

The bad news:

  • Some dry herd animals, caught in the fires on Narrawilly, are aborting their unborn calves. Rob and the vets are working closely to monitor their well-being, as well as the welfare and health of the remaining dry herd.
  • On Narrawilly, our irreplaceable, ancient rainforest was turned into an inferno on Saturday by an ember attack carried along on fierce southerly winds arriving in the early evening. Huge flames raged out of the rainforest's canopy into the blackened sky. Neighbours, farmers and friends arrived to help contain the worst of its spread and prevent the fire travelling south, directly into Milton village. The rainforest is burning still: there is real risk that it may break out of the gully to consume whatever has not yet be incinerated on the farm.
  • The farmhouse (built in the 1870s) and dairy face a double threat from active fires on the farm's southern edge (coming out of the rainforest) and northern perimeter (coming out of the swamp). 
  • On Croobyar farm, the exceptional work carried out by local landcare volunteers, over several years, was devastated by fire in minutes. Thousands of young trees, planted along the creeks, were destroyed by flames, along with untold numbers of reptiles, small mammals, birds and insects.
  • The farms' future breeding stock, on agistment in the Quaama / Cobargo area, were severely impacted  by separate bushfires raging there. The situation right now is that approximately 240 animals are safely contained and receiving emergency fodder and veterinarian assistance. The remaining 160 heifers are missing. We know some died in the fire; some have been euthanised; and others are still running free, across unfenced areas, along with wandering cattle from neighbouring properties. The local farming community in Cobargo is working to assist us.

UPDATE #2: On Monday, 6 January 2020, light showers started to fall on the farms. As of midday, 2mm of rain had fallen. We need exponentially more to bring the Currowan fires (and all other bushfires across Australia) to an end.

Our sincerest thanks go to our neighbours and friends, our local farming community and local business community. We are so very grateful for your assistance and support.

UPDATE #3: Conditions forecast for this coming Friday night, as well as those for the early hours of Saturday morning, aren't looking great for us (at this stage). A southerly wind is likely to hit Milton-Ulladulla some time between 9pm and midnight on Friday night, gusting up to 90 km/h, and carrying with it the potential to drive the active fire in Narrawilly's rainforest towards our dairy, farmhouse, northern paddocks and beyond.

Over the past few days we have received many messages of support from Australia's farming community -- and we appreciate all of your concern and love. When Rob has been able to speak to his farming peers on the phone, he has warned them of the following:

  • You will fight fires in extreme heat, including throughout the night. Our farm reached a high of 47 degrees on the late afternoon of 4 January 2020. This sort of intense heat will sap energy and resolve. Have plenty of rehydrating liquids on hand for your staff. Be aware that the effects of such intense heat and stress will not dissipate after the fire leaves your paddocks. Know that it may take you 48-72 hours to overcome the effects of dehydration after the fires abate. Staff rostering must take into account a recovery period.
  • You will have to fight the fires yourself. The NSW RFS has done an amazing job across our incinerated state given the resources available to it, and Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons has emerged as a true leader for our times. But farmers must note this fact: the RFS cannot be everywhere at once and, understandably, it is prioritising protecting residential properties. Assume, then, that you, as the farmer, will fight these fires yourself. Prepare your farms for multiple fire fronts. Assume, too, that the fires will return. Do not be complacent. From fire-fighting equipment and detailed weather data, through to providing face masks and goggles for your milking staff, your farming business cannot afford to be without essential physical and data resources during a bushfire.
  • You must use detailed scientific and meteorological data as part of your bushfire survival plan. Windy.com, a weather visualisation app, has been a source of invaluable information for us: it provides data on wind directions and strength, as well as temperature and humidity -- and, as farmers, we have to have this sort of information to plan and schedule fire-fighting rosters and watch-locations around our farms on high fire danger days. (We have to do all of this plus milk cows!) Farming without scientific or weather data is, quite simply, a death sentence in this era of climate breakdown.
  • You must not under-estimate the mental health impacts of this bushfire crisis. We have experienced 2 fires on our farms in 5 days. A third fire crisis is likely to occur on Friday night or in the early hours of Saturday morning.  The prospect of fighting another fire so soon after the previous two is psychologically exhausting. Our bellies are full of anxiety and terror rules our imagination. Be alert to the following: these fires will wreck your sleep; make your jumpy whenever a breeze picks up, and play havoc with your mind (e.g. your dreams will be full of smoke and embers). You or some of your staff members will (understandably) struggle to cope with the unrelenting stress of weeks and weeks of bushfire crisis on your farm and in the wider community. Be kind to your self and them during this unprecedented crisis.

UPDATE #4: Fires again on Narrawilly farm on Thursday, 23 January 2020, a day of very high temperatures and ferocious winds gusting from the north and north-west. Dust blanks out the sun, making it difficult to see where the fires are. Shortly after midday, flames leap out of the trees, race towards Rob's mother's home on Stony Hill Lane and the southern edge of the farm. Miriam evacuates to safety while the winds drive flames and smoke towards her house.

Firefighters save the house and all its contents after more than four hours of effort. Part of Miriam's garden is destroyed and surrounding paddocks and even more of the rainforest trees burnt.

UPDATE 5: For those keeping score at home, Rob's farms and business have been impacted by multiple fires on multiple dates:

  • 31 December 2019, Cobargo (Badja Forest Road Fire): fire reaches and consumes the farm on which Rob is agisting his future breeding stock herd, killing some, injuring others, and sending hundreds of heifers, along with other terrified animals from fire-affected farms, fleeing across burnt paddocks.
  • 31 December 2019, Milton (Currowan Fire): fire destroys paddocks plus water and fencing infrastructure on Narrawilly farm, and burns silage and hay intended for hand-feeding the milking and dry herds during the current drought. Note: Rob doesn't qualify for RIC drought loan relief as his farms are classified as not in a drought-affected local council according to the tool the RIC uses -- and which was developed for use by the United Nations to map desertification.
  • 4 January 2020, Milton (Currowan Fire): fires on both farms, Narrawilly and Croobyar, with extensive damage to Croobyar's paddocks and its water and fencing infrastructure, and even more damage to Narrawilly from a massive fire in the rainforest in its gully and across the monzanite hills.
  • 10 January 2020, Milton (Currowan Fire): spot fires and flare-ups on Narrawilly farm.
  • 23 January 2020, Milton (Currowan Fire): fires on Narrawilly's southern perimeter which impact Rob's mother's house and burn more pasture, fences and trees. Fires also re-ignite in the swamp on the northern edges but Rob and the team contain its spread.
  • 26 January 2020, Milton (Currowan Fire): flare-ups in the rainforest. Again. Milton RFS crew returns. Again. Milton's small mob of fire fighting volunteers scramble down steep inclines with hoses and rakehoes to douse flames and edit smouldering trees, stumps and vines. 
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