Bungundarra farmers Joycelyn and Robert Sikes with fire damaged mango trees.
Bungundarra farmers Joycelyn and Robert Sikes with fire damaged mango trees.

Farmer Sikes offers feedback on bushfire

AN intense battle to wrest his mango farm from the clutches of the devastating Cobraball bushfire has armed Robert Sikes with knowledge to prevent a repeat of the failures he encountered in the past week.

Mr Sikes said there needed to be more on-the-ground decision making, better vegetation management, regular burn-offs, improved mobile phone coverage and a new system to help locals pass through road blocks when they were staying behind to defend their properties.

“We’re looking for more practical assistance to prevent this situation from arising or if it does, to have a more commonsense approach,” Mr Sikes said.

Michelle Landry and David Littleproud speak with farmer Robert Sikes and local volunteer firefighters.
Michelle Landry and David Littleproud speak with farmer Robert Sikes and local volunteer firefighters.

“The decisions that are being made, are being made remotely from people who don’t have any experience or don’t have real knowledge of what’s actually happening here.

“I think it’s just as simple as having these guys who are making these decisions being here to get my viewpoint instead of looking at helicopter imagery on a computer in an airconditioned office in Brisbane and making those decisions.

“That would be far better for us than a $1,000 hand-out at this stage.”

Yesterday Mr Sikes got his wish, welcoming key decision makers including Emergency Services Minister David Littleproud, Capricornia MP Michelle Landry, Livingstone Shire mayor Bill Ludwig and QFES Acting Assistant Commissioner Steve Smith to his fire scorched property to show them first hand what went wrong and needed fixing.

Bungundarra farmer Robert shows David Littleproud, Michelle Landry, Bill Ludwig and Steve Smith around his fire impacted orchard.
Bungundarra farmer Robert shows David Littleproud, Michelle Landry, Bill Ludwig and Steve Smith around his fire impacted orchard.

After burning north from Cobraball on Saturday, he explained to them how a southerly wind change on Sunday morning pushed the fire front towards the remanent vegetation bordering the Sikes’ 40ha Williams Rd property in Bungadarra.

Armed with utes, quad bikes and tractors loaded with water, the Sikes family and neighbours - a dozen in all - bravely battled to halt the march of flames towards their two year old crop of mango trees.

Their 30-year-old farm was saved but 1,000 to 2,000 of the trees were destroyed by the fire.

During a recent visit, an assessor estimated the total damage to the irrigation systems, grazing land and crop (at $100 per tree) was in the vicinity of $100,000 and $200,000.

Despite being eligible to apply for government support, Mr Sikes said they weren’t looking for hand-outs when they were focused on their trees’ recovery and patrolling control lines.

He expressed anger that small pockets of native vegetation in ‘green zones’ bordering his orchard were restricted and he couldn’t cut them back any further.

Bungundarra farmers Joycelyn and Robert Sikes with fire damaged mango trees.
Bungundarra farmers Joycelyn and Robert Sikes with fire damaged mango trees.

“When an event like this comes along, we controlled our main perimeter only to find small unmanaged areas were giving us problems so we want the ability to control those,” he said.

“The (government) needs to review the value of these small blocks. We’re all for conservation areas but it needs to be commonsense and they need to come here so I can explain to them (why).”

Another of his complaints revolved around the lack of regular backburning in the area, especially on the nearby hill, which had accumulated a high fuel load.

“There was a prohibition on backburning which rendered our fire brigades ineffective,” he said.

“A long time ago a man smarter than me said ‘you fight fire with fire’.”

FIRE GROUND: Mango farmer Robert Sike explains how his family weathered the weekend firestorm in Bungundarra.
FIRE GROUND: Mango farmer Robert Sike explains how his family weathered the weekend firestorm in Bungundarra.

Efforts to defend their property were also hampered by road blocks preventing people from returning to the area, preventing the flow of hot meals to weary firefighters and the inability to get into town to stock up on fuel and other provisions.

While acknowledging the need to keep sightseers, looters and firebugs out of evacuated areas, Mr Sikes hoped a better system could be established in the future where residents could show their drivers licence proving where they lived, allowing them to move more freely to help them defend their properties.