Fire and floods – a land of extremes

Host: Kalyeeda Station
Written by Barb Camp – Station Hand, Kalyeeda Station.

Situated in the tropical North of WA, the weather in the Kimberley is very different to my native Scotland. The Kimberley has only two seasons – the wet and the dry. To explain this in terms of the daily ABC weather report – there are only two variations that they play on a loop. For about eight months of the year every day they will tell you it will be clear skies and sunshine. For the next four months you will get a vague ‘hot with the chance of a thunderstorm’.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe view from the homestead overlooking the yards in the dry season . . .

4.2and in the wet . . .

We are on the edge of the mighty Fitzroy River. In a big wet season it will burst its banks and can flood all the way up to our homestead and leave us marooned on a sand dune. Our roads become waterways and our cows can be trapped and swept away by the creeping water. We try to be smart about moving them onto sandy desert countries before the floods arrive but sometimes we are unprepared. In those situations we rely on helicopters to push the cattle to higher country to wait for the water to recede.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis shot was taken from the chopper as we moved some stranded cattle through the floods to higher ground.

These floods can be spectacular, but the rainfall is not a dead cert. Some years we may get far below our yearly average of 450ml. Those are the tough years. Much of our country has no artificial water supplies like bores and dams so we rely on the natural billabongs and waterholes that are filled every year by the rain and floods. If we have a dry year or – God forbid – a couple of dry years, then the water the cows and all the wildlife rely on will dry out. We have to be diligent about checking out water holes and the corners of every paddock for cattle perishing from thirst or stuck in bogs as the water dries up. Moving weak, dehydrated cattle in the heat at the end of the season is slow and heartbreaking, but no one can control the weather. Installing bores and dams is an ongoing process at Kalyeeda but takes time and money and is not always foolproof – sometimes the pumps just can’t keep up with the demands of the animals and sometimes they break down. It’s a full time job to check and maintain them, and the consequences can be dire.

4.4Water holes like these are chock-a-block at the end of the wet, but can dry up as the months get dryer. We have to maintain constant vigilance and be ready to move them to another water point before the ground gets boggy and cattle get stuck looking for a drink.

There’s another big seasonal danger that affects us every year – fire. Just think – after six months of no rain and baking hot days the vegetation becomes dry tinder ready to spark up at the drop of a hat. Before the Wet comes the build up a period of hot winds and lightning with no rain to show for it. If that lightning hits that dry grass and is picked up by the wind it can rage out of control in minutes.

Fighting fires out in the bush can be full-on and dangerous. We treat it like a wild animal and try to outsmart it by cutting off it’s fuel supply. This usually means trying to get around it and hem it in by cutting off its food supply. We do this by creating a fuel free border with no vegetation for it to. We use heavy machinery to scrape big tracks clear of grass, and then back-burn off of these. This involves lighting a fire down-wind of the oncoming blaze that travel out to meet it and in the process take all its fuel and pull it up.

4.5Back-burning off a graded road to starve the fire of its fuel is one of the best ways of stopping a fire without losing too much country, but fire can be difficult to predict . . .

Nature’s a tricky mistress, though, and the wind can change direction in seconds. Suddenly your back-burn is picked up by the breeze and can turn around on top of you. Our fire-fighting Utes are loaded with 500 gallon water tanks and hoses, but when a big blaze comes at you, you may as well spit at it. These fires are very dangerous. I’ve seen blazes three stories high roaring down towards a ute load of my friends when seconds before the fire was heading in the opposite direction at a crawl.

4.6Fires can get big and out of control at the drop of a hat, and they can jump your back-burns and graded paths with a gust of strong wind.

Every season bushfires – sometimes started by lightning, sometimes by accident or carelessness, or sometimes by deliberate vandalism can rip through and destroy massive swathes of land. It’s not fussy whether it’s your property or your neighbours’ and the longer they blaze uncontrolled the bigger and more damaging they get.

These are the times the remote Kimberley community pulls together. Your nighbours will come help, and so will their neighbours. It’s a tough, tiring job and teams of people can be fighting it for days on end and 24 hours a day, catching sleep in shifts whenever the blaze dies down enough to allow it. Fire is everyone’s problem, and everyone pulls together to beat it and hopes the next one isn’t threatening their livelihood.