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Anxious farmers remember 2003

Date

John Thistleton

Tidbinbilla Station owner Michael Shanahan and his four-year-old daughter Tess among the long grass on the property.

Tidbinbilla Station owner Michael Shanahan and his four-year-old daughter Tess among the long grass on the property. Photo: Graham Tidy

Tidbinbilla Station sheep grazier Michael Shanahan believes the odds of three successive green summers are unlikely.

''Also our stocking levels are still historically very low, so we simply do not have enough mouths to help reduce grass fuel loads on our farm,'' he says.

Tidbinbilla Station's frantic preparations saved sheep and the property west of Canberra in the 2003 firestorm, but 400 animals died later from smoke inhalation.

Around the main homestead, the shearing and machinery sheds and in the paddocks to the west, the grass is eaten well down.

Paddocks to the south and east of public roads have been targeted. The topography near the house causes a threat from the south-west as well.

''We try and maintain vehicle access tracks, especially creek and gully crossings, but this will not be achieved this year due to significant damage from last year's heavy rains and floods,'' Mr Shanahan said.

He accepts advice from his neighbours with long-term knowledge of fires. ''Old-timers will tell you to watch which way the rain falls because, in general, this will give you the best indication as to which way a fire will travel as well.''

Now retired, Cliff Stevens was a ranger during the January 2003 firestorm, when he told two younger firefighters they would see things that day they thought they never would witness in a lifetime.

Near Tidbinbilla homestead he was warned that a fire was coming down the valley, which didn't worry him because it had already been burnt out. But even though there was no fuel, that fire came anyway.

''It came rolling down the valley. It was a kilometre wide and the flame was a rolling ball about a metre high, with all different colours like it was burning off the gases from the ground or something.

''It was very unusual. I couldn't believe what we were seeing.'' The flames were quickly extinguished. Today, inside Tidbinbilla Station's machinery shed, a yellow monster of a Mercedes Benz truck, fitted out for firefighting, and a four-wheel-drive are on standby.

''However, given years of drought followed by years of record rainfall, I would have to admit our preparedness for what could potentially be a bad season is not up to scratch,'' Mr Shanahan said.

''For example, we have sprinkler systems on the roofs of sheds and houses, but for various reasons they are not operational at present, whereas they were in 2003.

''We have a lot of work to do on the farm and being bushfire ready just adds to the work load this year.''

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