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The fight for Ethabuka & Cravens Peak

Published 20 Mar 2012 

What gives someone the strength to battle one of Bush Heritage’s greatest natural emergencies?

Lightning strikes started the blaze at Ethabuka Reserve.Lightning strikes started the blaze at Ethabuka Reserve. Photo: Al Dermer


Lucy Ashley spoke with Karen Dermer about her experience when wildfire threatened your Cravens Peak and Ethabuka Reserves in western Queensland late last year.

Steve Heggie and Mo PieterseBush Heritage reserve staff Steve Heggie and Mo Pieterse during preparations as the fire front approaches Ethabuka Homestead.

It wasn't long after Karen Dermer had put her three children, Asha (6), Clay (4) and Zavier (1) to bed before she heard the sounds of tiny feet coming back down the hallway. Asha and Clay just couldn't contain their excitement. There was a huge orange glow in the sky and they just had to tell Mum all about it.

Karen listened to her kids as they described what they'd seen from their bedroom window.

Then she took a deep breath, and as calmly as she could, explained that the orange glow they could see was the big fire out in the desert that their dad was helping to put out. Dad was very good at putting out fires and everything would be fine.

Tucking them back into bed, Karen stepped outside to take another look at the sky. Despite how close it looked at night, she knew from satellite imagery that this fire was far away.

“To see them working together - and supporting each other to help protect a place they so clearly love - was truly awe inspiring.

Still, it would be good to have Al and his fire-fighting crew back home safe and sound for even a few hours' rest before they were up and off again.

The homecoming

A fire sweeps across Cravens Peak ReserveA fire front sweeps across Cravens Peak Reserve.

It was a big decision for Al Dermer and his wife Karen to return to your Cravens Peak and Ethabuka Reserves last August as interim reserve managers after years away from the reserve.

No-one among the Bush Heritage staff has a more enduring connection to this wild and remote place than Al and Karen. As the properties' first reserve managers starting just after the reserves were purchased with your help in 2004, Karen and Al put several years of back-breaking work into the long, slow process of nurturing this formerly barren and dusty land, full of skeletons of trees and cattle, back to glorious life.

Al and Karen have so much of themselves invested here. Their eldest child Asha took her first baby steps in the red sand around the Ethabuka homestead. And during the fires, Zavier did the same at Cravens Peak.

The desert transformed

Black kites take advantage of the fire front flushing prey from cover.Black kites take advantage of the fire front flushing prey from cover. Photo: Steve Heggie

Thanks to your fantastic support, Al and Karen have seen an almost wondrous transformation in the land they left a few years ago, which back then was only just showing the first signs of recovery.

Several good seasons of rain have caused wetlands, water courses and creeks to fill, and for abundant bird life to return. The desert dunes are carpeted in spinifex and healthy coolabahs, creating safe havens for desert-dwelling small mammals, reptiles and birds.

Though drought will come again to this land, as it always does in the Simpson Desert, Al and Karen know that it will now be more resilient. So when all we've achieved together at Cravens Peak and Ethabuka came under threat late last year from wildfire, Al and Karen dedicated their waking hours to fighting the fires, as well as ensuring the safety of their family and fellow firefighters.

A long tough campaign

For nearly eight long weeks, Al worked with a team of firefighters, sometimes including as many as 32 people, comprising Bush Heritage staff from eastern Queensland and South Australia, neighbours, local volunteers and members of several Queensland government departments to control the fires and stop them spreading to neighbouring land.

Fire in grassland.

Supporting the fire-fighting team at ‘home base' was Karen, balancing her role as parent with countless other tasks. In the desert, she says, in situations like this you just get on and do whatever you have to do.

In any one day this meant a busy schedule of home-schooling Asha, looking after her two boys, filling the vital role of community liaison officer for the local fire-fighting efforts, and making sure that their food supplies held up for as long as needed.

"We ate a lot of potatoes, rice and cabbage," she says. "Camel curry became our night-time staple".

The fire came very closs to the Ethabuka homesteadWith firebreaks and fighting through the night, reserve staff were able to save the Ethabuka homestead. Photo: Steve Heggie

One of the Bush Heritage staff on the front line with Al Dermer was Mo Pieterse. Mo is our new Field Officer at Cravens Peak and Ethabuka, and you could say that his first month in his job was a real baptism of fire.

He says watching Karen and Al juggle so many vital roles so well throughout the emergency, from fighting fires one day to piggy-backing their squealing kids around the yard at Cravens Peak the next, was really something special.

“To see them working together - and supporting each other to help protect a place they so clearly love - was truly awe inspiring.” 

Ethabuka and Cravens Peak reserves were acquired in 2004 and 2005 with the assistance of the Australian government's National Reserve System program and The Nature Conservancy. Bush Heritage also thanks Diversicon Environmental Foundation for assistance in the purchase of Ethabuka, and the Estate of Josephine Gay Bell for assistance in the purchase of Cravens Peak.

The Dermer family at dinner.

Thank you from Al and Karen

Approximately 27% of Ethabuka and Cravens Peak reserves burnt during the fires, but thanks to the work you've helped Al and other reserve managers do, the news is not all bad. Much of the land was burnt in patches, allowing animals places to seek refuge. New life has begun to emerge after Summer rains, preventing erosion and providing animals with shelter and food.

We'll update you when the rain stops and the land dries out, allowing ecologists to access the reserves. Thanks to your ongoing support, their assessments will help to improve and refine our fire management plans.