Matthew Cleve and daughter Maggie on their burnt property. Photo: Pat Scala Photo: Pat Scala
Matthew Cleve could hardly believe what he was hearing when he took the call about three weeks ago. The voice on the other end of the phone, which belonged to his livestock agent, was explaining the surprising news that 14 of his cows and calves had turned up on the edge of Melbourne.
What made this news most interesting is that they had materialised after being missing for more than five weeks, after most of the Darraweit Guim farm where they lived was hit by fire on February 9. The animals had escaped the blaze and gone for a very long walk - presumably across other farms and a number of country roads - before they turned up on another fire-hit property about 20 kilometres away in Mickleham.
For Mr Cleve the nomadic animals translate into a small and unexpected financial gain. Good news it may be, but it is only a small gain when considered against the massive damage bill left behind by fire on the land north of Melbourne where he farms with his wife, Natalie. Unfortunately for the 40-year-old farmer from Springfield, west of Wallan, he has had only one such phone call outlining such an animal discovery since the fire hit more than two months ago.
Tallying up the losses as he sits on a stool in his kitchen, which has an impressive view of the burnt but now greening hillsides across the gully, he estimates the total damages bill at more than $300,000. ''It's a massive impact,'' he says.
It is a damage bill with many components. On the family property known as Gracedale in Darraweit Guim, which he owns with his siblings, the fire destroyed a shearing shed, machinery shed and stockyards. And the lost fences at Gracedale, he says, will cost about $100,000 to reinstate. ''The Darraweit property, the family farm, was the hub. We had all the infrastructure there,'' he says.
In terms of livestock almost 400 sheep owned by the Cleves were either destroyed by fire, had to be euthanased or are still missing. The Cleves' cattle herd was also hit, with more than 50 cows and calves destroyed by the blaze.
Mr Cleve says the farm losses will be covered by insurance but guesses he is probably a little ''underinsured''.
The fire destroyed about 11 kilometres of fences on two properties owned by the Cleves and elsewhere, on land the family leases, an estimated 20 kilometres of fences were lost.
Burnt paddocks and destroyed fences mean animals cannot graze or be contained, so livestock transport had to be organised in a hurry to move the surviving animals elsewhere. Most of the livestock carrying, to properties in Gisborne and Lancefield, was done free of charge. The animals now at Gisborne, about 1000 of the Cleves' sheep, are roaming around free of agistment costs thanks to a generous gesture by the Bland family.
''The support has been overwhelming,'' Mr Cleve says. ''It's good to see the community banding together post-fires … It's humbling.''
The help - it came from family, friends, neighbours, community groups and strangers - started straight away. When Mr Cleve battled fire at Gracedale, he recalls that about three CFA units were also tackling the blaze. A flat-bed truck with an old CFA tank on the back, manned by three men, also helped.
The crew on the flat-bed truck arrived unexpectedly, worked for a few hours and then went off to help another landowner. Mr Cleve had never met them but remains eternally grateful for their help in tackling a fire that at times was ''terrifying'', with visibility sometimes down to 10 metres.
People from the Lancefield Football Club came and rolled up burnt fences, while Blaze Aid volunteers - about four a day - spent about 10 days pulling down and rolling up fences. ''It was fantastic,'' Mr Cleve says. ''They'd come in, they'd be there by 8 o'clock in the morning, they'd work till 3 or 3.30 in the afternoon and they were all keen and happy to help.''
The widespread community support, including about four semi-trailer loads of donated hay and about 30 tonnes of grain, ensured the animals stayed fed and helped the family continue along the recovery path.
But it will take a long time, Mr Cleve estimates about 18 months, before the farm is back on a similar footing to what it was on as recently as February 8 this year, the day before the fire.