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Families getting 'bogged' in sand pouring out of drought-affected paddocks

Leonie Thorne and Cherie von Hörchner, Monday December 2, 2019 - 14:27 EDT
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Normally in spring the Millewa would be covered in crops and pastures. - ABC

Sand drift in a drought-affected corner of north-west Victoria has become so severe that some homes are only accessible by four-wheel drive and the local council is treating the issue as an emergency.

Spring paddocks across the Millewa region would normally be covered in crops or vegetation, but after a second year of drought the land has become so parched not even weeds have been able to grow.

The dry conditions mean red top soil is blowing out of farms, piling up on roads and blocking driveways in the region.

Wargan mixed farmer Matt Curtis, who has been on his farm in the Millewa for more than 25 years, said the land was in the worst state he had seen it.

"When you've got to get your blower out every morning to get the dust off your veranda and the fire alarm starts going off at night time, you know it's pretty bad," he said.

There were 25 places with "major sand drift problems", according to Mildura Rural City Council's engineering coordinator Aaron Huttig, who said the issue had become dramatically worse in recent months.

"It started with the very dry start to the winter across May and June — we had seven sand drifts at that stage which we are able to contain and clean up," he said.

"It wasn't really until mid-way through October we started to realise we had an emergency on our hands."

Cars 'bogged' in piles of soil

Some families in the region, like Fiona Black's, have essentially been "stranded" by the sheer amount of soil building up on the roads, needing a four-wheel drive or help from neighbours to get into town.

"It is really difficult to get the cars through, and my daughter doesn't have a four-wheel drive [to go to school in]," Ms Black said.

"Often it means she is getting bogged and we're having to push her through, or having people on standby to come and tow us through the sand drift."

Ms Black also has a family member with a life-threatening allergy to bees, and fears that if an emergency were to happen, emergency services would take too long to get through.

"It's action stations when it happens — he does have the medical back-up with epipens and so forth, but of course we need an ambulance pretty quickly," she said.

It is s a fear also shared by Millewa farmer and Landcare coordinator Annette Lambert, whose driveway has regularly been blocked in recent months.

"I have health conditions, and if I had to call an ambulance, the only way out for me is a helicopter," she said.

Ms Lambert added that "as if the drought isn't isolating enough", friends could not visit and she struggled to get feed onto her property for livestock.

Farmers say help has come 'too little too late'

Mildura Council said it would start digging new driveways for people who need it "urgently", and in the short-term would give emergency services weekly updates on properties that cannot be accessed without a four-wheel drive.

Longer term options, like building "sand fences" along paddocks to create bankments, or working with farmers to build large trenches that would catch the sand, need state government approvals before getting underway.

But many residents feel the measures have come "too little too late", with farmers at a public information session on Thursday questioning how the issue was able to get so severe when sand drift was flagged as early as June.

Mr Curtis said trying to navigate some of the roads near his property without a four-wheel drive was a waste of time.

"If Deakin Avenue [in Mildura City] was blocked off like this, it would be cleaned up in two hours," he said.

"We seem to be treated like second class citizens as far as I'm concerned."

Ms Lambert said she was glad to see council recognising and making plans to fix the issue, but felt as the region was in its second year of drought, there could have been better preparation.

"In a flood you have to respond emotionally, financially and physically, and in a fire you have to respond emotionally, financially, physically," she said.

"You have to do it very quickly because it's happened very quickly.

"In a drought by the time the real impact of the the drought's happened — emotionally, financially, physically — you have nothing left in your tank to fight when you get to the real depth of the drought."



© ABC 2019

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