Community Spirit Burns Bright

By Jayne Cuddihy

The seasons in north Queensland can turn quickly. When the wet sets in, dry and dusty paddocks can transform into green pasture within days. But it can also go the other way. Unseasonal early heat and westerly winds can dry out grass, becoming a tinderbox in the second half of the year.

In 2023 Queensland’s Far North recorded rain well into the winter months which allowed a good body of grass to grow. But when the tap turned off, the writing was on the wall for an early fire season.

“We could see how the year was developing,” said Inspector Neil Parker from the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service.

“Our agency has been warning people to be prepared as early as February as all our media releases said the same. Our last major event was a week ago (at the end of November) and it was 38 days.”

Over 688,672 hectares have been burnt in the far northern region since August 1, and from the ashes has risen stronger communities.

The township of Croydon is a closeknit one. With a population of around 250, the municipality is surrounded by vast cattle properties. While fire management is generally left to the pastoralists, the sheer scale of the 2023 event prompted a reaction from the entire community.

Darren Stonehouse has lived in the Croydon area for 18 years and said he’s never had such a dramatic start to the fire season. His workforce was in the middle of a mustering round at Guildford Station, 40km west of the township when they dropped everything to defend their property from a fire heading towards them from Mittagong Station.

“We were there for five or 10 days- it’s all a blur now! It’s probably the worst one I’ve had to deal with as far as area and size. It hadn’t started on their property, but had been burning for many days already before it got to our boundary,” Mr Stonehouse recalls.

Normally preparations for the fire season starts in October — ahead of the prickly dry breezes of summer. Standard procedure for the Stonehouses is a graded fire break right around their 60,000 acre property, but this year they were caught unaware with the fires coming early on.

“One thing that I will say that was great, is that I was so encouraged by the community. Usually when there’s a fire we drop everything and put fire-breaks and look after our own show, but that night half of Croydon turned up to give us a hand, including the fire brigade.”

The combination of wind, the body of fuel and the intensity of the blaze made it a priority for the local community to manage the disaster.

“It was the windiest two days I’ve seen in the Gulf for a long time and it turned the region into an inferno basically,” said Mr Stonehouse.

“There’s no way they could stop it no matter what they prepared. It got really raging and tore through properties and no one could pull them up.”

Read the full article in the Gulf Croaker:

Main photo: Ronell Evans

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