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Kangaroo Valley locals unite to save livestock from Currowan bushfire

Sarina Locke, Wednesday January 8, 2020 - 11:53 EDT
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Kristen McLennan's tractors with the hens were towed to safety by locals ahead of Saturday's fires. - ABC

A cry for help from a free-range egg farmer at Kangaroo Valley on Friday night brought 20 locals in their utes ready to drag chook tractors to the safety of a dairy near the town.



On Friday night the Currowan fire was burning on the southern side of the Shoalhaven River west of Nowra, and a southerly change on Saturday was expected to push it straight to Kangaroo Valley.

"We just put the call out for anyone to come and help, and we had 20 cars turn up with their tow-bars," free range egg farmer Kristen McLennan said.

Their farm Bendeela lies 10 kilometres west of Kangaroo Valley.

"We had 26 trailers we had to get here … we did it in a one-kilometre long convoy with the SES," Ms McLennan said.

The convoy successfully moved 4,000 hens penned inside the chook tractors, over several hours.

"We finished at about 3:30 in the morning on Saturday," Ms McLennan said.

The Currowan fire, which has burnt over 300,000 hectares, jumped the Shoalhaven River on Saturday and made a run north past Kangaroo Valley to hit Bundanoon and Exeter, destroying several houses in its path.

While the hens were safely relocated to the dairy farm in Kangaroo Valley, the fire burnt to within 500 metres of Bendeela, their free-range egg farm.

"We're just lucky, the fire just raged through at the end of our farm road," Ms McLennan said.

Death toll from pre-Christmas heat

Kristen and her partner Mark McLennan had been desperate not to lose anymore hens to heat.

Just before Christmas 2,000 birds died of heat stress, nearly a third of her flock, despite their attempts to keep them cool and watered.

"On that Saturday it was so hot … it was the hardest, most horrific day we've ever had on the farm," she said.

"It was so heartbreaking watching the birds die and not being able to do anything to help them."

Homes lost in the Southern Highlands



While the McLennans will be able to continue producing free range, pastured eggs, not everyone was so lucky in the fires.

"Friends of ours lost their houses, everything's completely gone … and they're now trying to work out where they go, whether they stay," Ms McLennan.

Kangaroo Valley local Andy Santos has started a GoFundMe campaign for the RFS and finding accommodation for those who have lost their homes.

"A lot of people have lost homes, property, sheds, fodder and wildlife at Kangaroo Valley," Ms Santos said.



Southerly change fierce but short

Farmer Garth Chittick owns the dairy where the chickens were rehoused.

He was surprised by the speed of the southerly on Saturday night, that threatened the Valley.

"We were outside our house, my son and I, at nine o'clock [when] the southerly came and you had to lean into it just to stand up," Mr Chittick said.



But the strong winds only lasted 20 minutes in Kangaroo Valley and instead of the fire coming down out of the escarpment, the fire actually shot straight through to Bundanoon, destroying several houses before midnight.

Although there is now a fire break for Kangaroo Valley, Mr Chittick said these fires were different to what he had ever faced before.

"It's far from over, only torrential long-term rain will finish it," he said.

Dairy farmer questions future in a drying climate



Mr Chittick may have saved all his milkers, but the 70-year-old fears for the future of farming in a once-lush area.

The normally-green and highly productive Kangaroo Valley is bordered by rainforest, which is now dangerously dry.



Mr Chittick's herd has dropped by a third to just 250 milking cows, with feed costs having risen to $500 a tonne and grain at $490 a tonne.

That price increase has now pushed his costs of production higher than his returns.

He is one of the lucky ones, able to use waste water from the town sewage system, where he can irrigate a corn crop to feed the cows.

But his resilience is wearing thin in the face of climate change.

"Climate change — no fool can deny there's climate change," he said.

"For the last five years we've been below the average rainfall, and this year we got half our average rainfall. We got 563mm against what should be 1,200mm.

"We've got to see what the future holds and I'm not as confident as I used to be.

"There are only five dairy farms left in Kangaroo Valley — how many there'll be in a few years' time, I don't know."

For now, the fire that skirted to the west on top of the escarpment created an uncertain fire break, and the fire season may last another two months.


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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