Farmers count cost of fires, but hopes new vintage not up in smoke


More than 800 livestock have been killed in NSW and 9500 rural properties have been damaged, according to the state’s Local Land Services.

Even the bees are struggling – 64 tonnes of sugar have been planted in NSW’s fire-ravaged eucalypt forests to assist apiarists with this year’s honey yield.

Adelaide Hills Wine Region executive officer Kerry Truel said the industry was still counting the cost of intense fires that claimed 86 homes and one life.

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“There was about 1100 hectares in the fire’s path, which is one-third of the Adelaide Hills plantings. We’re still determining how many vineyards were impacted… it  could cost $100 million in lost revenue,” Ms Truel said.

“The grapes are still small and hard and they shouldn’t be penetrated by the smoke. But it can take up to five years to re-start production if you have to replant vines.”

Christina Tulloch, the president of the Hunter Valley Wine and Tourism Association, said local vineyards had fruit on the vines with developing colour a little earlier than usual because of the drought. Growers would have a better idea about how the smoke exposure would affect quantity and quality when they harvested in January.

While the Hunter Valley had many days of smoke haze, Ms Tulloch said only “new smoke” from a fire nearby would affect the grapes.

“There’s some extraordinary number of kilometres of fences that’ve been destroyed, it’d be in the thousands,” said NSW Farmers president James Jackson from his Guyra sheep run in northern NSW, where the fire season began exceptionally early in September this year.

“The consequences for biosecurity and animal welfare are significant. It’s a challenge to contain the animals, stop them wandering to other properties and National Parks, and to keep them fed.”

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Grassroots charity Blaze Aid, which helps farmers and rural communities recover after natural disasters, has volunteer camps set up across northern NSW and South Australia in the wake of fires which have killed nine in total, destroyed more than 1000 homes, and burnt more than 5 million hectares across the country.

“We’ve got nine bases at the moment, but that could easily grow to 15,” said Blaze Aid founder and president Kevin Butler in between feeding the sheep on his Kilmore, Victoria property.

“I’m getting lots of new inquiries, we might have one at Lithgow soon. I’m spending eight hours a day or more on the phone while I’m working on the farm.

“The big thing we’ve found in the past couple of years, probably because of climate change, these natural disasters are just coming one on top of the other. It’s just happening so often and our resources are being stretched.”

James Tilbrook, of Tilbrook Estate in the Adelaide Hills, said a fire razed his house, vineyard and winery on December 20, and he’s now trying to save what he can of his four-acre crop with a group of volunteers.

“There is 1.5 acres that’s potentially going to produce some fruit this year, and definitely next year,” Mr Tilbrook said.

“And then we’ve got about an acre that is black, and the rest is somewhere between alive and dead. If it’s OK, it will probably take until vintage 2022 to bear fruit. We’ve essentially lost the production for this year and next year.”

Orchardists in Bilpin, on Sydney’s north western fringe, report apple and stone fruit plantations were largely spared when the Gospers Mountain fire blazed up to properties along the Bells Line of Road last week.

Gilmore MP Fiona Phillips said people in her South Coast electorate, which is battling blazes in its north near Nowra and its south near Batemans Bay, were “shocked” by the extend and intensity of this summer’s fires.

“It’s been going for weeks and weeks… It’s a worrying forecast. Last Saturday the fires travelled a long distance towards Nowra and it could potentially jump the Shoalhaven River. And if we get westerlies it will come back towards coastal communities,” she said.

With Caitlin Fitzsimmons and Sumeyya Ilanbey

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