Steve Whillas and his family were some of the many farmers who suffered significant losses as a result of the Wangary bushfire on the Lower Eyre Peninsula in January 2005.
With farms at Wanilla, Green Patch and North Shields, Steve lost a house, machinery, sheds, livestock and more than 800 hectares in the blaze which burnt almost 78,000ha in total and, tragically, resulted in the deaths of nine people.
Steve says while being underinsured made getting the farm back on track tougher than it could have been, he took the experience as an opportunity to start afresh on his property. He has some advice for fellow growers with significant losses as a result of the Pinery fire.
“It was hard, but we saw an opportunity to make the best out of a bad situation,” Steve says. “We didn’t lose family in the fire which put things into perspective and made us realise we should just get on with it and rebuild.”
Once it came time to rebuild, one of the first things Steve did was bring in outside expertise to help with farm planning. He says farm advisers and planners played a very important role in helping him redesign his farm.
“It was the one chance we would get in our farming life to restructure the business to a modern day practice,” Steve says.
Steve’s farm was completely redesigned and fenced according to soil type for his cropping and livestock enterprises. Wetter soils were fenced off into smaller paddocks for livestock and heavier soils for cropping. Creek lines and scrub patches were also fenced off to protect native vegetation. The farm now has better paddock runs, bigger gateways and bigger sheds for larger, modern-day machinery.
Realising his first income stream was going to be from his remaining livestock, Steve had ewes shorn, mated and agisted. He prioritised rebuilding livestock infrastructure – fences and troughs – so he could bring the sheep back onto his place once the agistment term finished.
With plenty of volunteer help available, Steve aimed to be as efficient as possible.
“I had everything laid out for the volunteer labour at my place and gave everyone a plan of what needed to be done while the help was there,” he says. “You’ve got to use volunteer labour as efficiently as possible while it’s available.”
Steve made the decision not to cultivate paddocks because, being in hilly country, the farm already had contour banks to help stop erosion. However, looking back he says cultivation might have been a better option to bring clods to the soil surface and further minimise erosion.
Above all else, Steve’s biggest learning from the experience was to seek the counselling available at the time.
“The immediate response for farmers is to get the fires put out, secure what assets they have and start rebuilding, then within two to six months the first lot of counselling will come after that initial period of work is done, but it might be two or more years later when the realisation will really kick in they will need ongoing support,” he says.
“The Wangary fire was a major event in our lives, we are still dealing the emotional scars 10 years on, so for me, accessing counselling was a very high priority.
“Following our experience I really wanted to give something back from all the help we received, so a big thing that helped with my recovery was to go over and help in Victoria during the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 and during the fires at Bangor in SA in 2014.”
Steve Whillas, 0458 852 268, firstname.lastname@example.org