Fire at Ethabuka Reserve

Wednesday 21 December, 2011
Fire at Ethabuka ReserveAt times the fires trickled along. At others they flared up and raced through the landscape. Photo: Steve Heggie

In late September, Steve Heggie clicked on satellite images of the Simpson Desert for what seemed like the hundredth time. The images told him what he'd been hoping to avoid - fire was on its way to Ethabuka Reserve.

It was a Monday morning when Steve Heggie hopped in his ute and turned it in the direction of Ethabuka Reserve, Queensland. As Regional Reserve Manager for Bush Heritage, Steve was used to making plans with one eye on Mother Nature, but that week, he was hoping she would bring waves, not fires – his car was packed, his surfboards strapped to the roof-rack and he and his wife were set for ten days holiday in Byron Bay.

Two days and 1700km later, Steve felt the hot, dusty air of the Simpson Desert on his skin as he greeted Reserve Managers Al and Karen Dermer at Ethabuka. Steve and twelve other Bush Heritage team members would spend the next two months fighting wildfire in an around-the-clock vigil, involving 32 firefighters including neighbours, volunteers from the local community and staff from government departments.

Bush Heritage reserve staff Al Dermer and MoBush Heritage reserve staff Al Dermer and Mo Pieterse during back-burn operations. Photo: David Akers

The fire would burn 760 square kilometres of land at Ethabuka and Cravens Peak reserves as well as thousands more in the Simpson Desert National Park and neighbouring pastoral stations. The Queensland government would declare the area a disaster area.

When Steve looked out over the Ethabuka landscape, he saw fingers of smoke and fire reaching high into the air. "In this part of the country, you can watch a fire come towards you for miles," he said. "At night, the orange glow of the fires can make them seem closer than they really are."

Ethabuka Homestead the day after the fire passed throughThe Ethabuka Homestead was saved by fire breaks and back-burns put in place by Bush Heritage and Queensland Government staff. Photo: Steve Heggie

Within hours of arriving, Steve was putting years of training and fire management expertise into practice. He worked alongside his team as they fought to protect the homestead and other infrastructure, and to prevent the spread of fire to nearby properties, where neighbours rely on the land for their livelihood.

"This is exactly what we prepare for," said Steve. "Staff from two reserves in the east and Bon Bon Station in South Australia were ready to provide immediate backup. Soon after, reserve managers from further afield arrived to relieve them."

"It gets pretty intense – wearing your yellows (protective clothing) and feeling the heat radiating before you even get close to the fire. It's exhausting work."

Steve was relieved to have Bush Heritage supporters behind him. "It's important to have good systems and equipment – satellite phones, experienced staff – none of that is cheap. We have a lot to thank our supporters for."

Fire mosaic in the desert from the airThe fires have burnt in a patchwork. Photo: Al Dermer

While images of the fires can be confronting, Steve is quick to offer reassurance. "Although we manage fire carefully and we plan for it, wildfire is not in itself a bad thing," said Steve. "It's part of the landscape. Over time, the land needs a patchwork of burns, which reduces the chance of huge, destructive wildfire."

After six weeks, Steve finally went home and stayed home. In an email to colleagues, he described himself as "fried – not so much physically, but mentally." He slept for twelve hours straight. At Ethabuka, Al and Karen would sleep with one eye open for weeks, as summer storms hung over the reserve. It's just the beginning of the fire season and the job is far from finished.

How did your support help Steve fight the fire?

In November 2010, Bush Heritage supporters responded to our call to help fight wildfire on your precious reserves. Here's how you helped the firefighters on the frontline:

  • Incident management training for reserve managers in July 2011
  • $80,000 of grader machinery dedicated to Cravens Peak and Ethabuka reserves
  • Emergency safety "grab" bags for reserve staff to carry when working remotely
  • Satellite phones, ‘SPOT' tracking devices and satellite fire imagery
  • Protective clothing for firefighting
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