“I RAN to the chaser bin tractor, went to grab the door handle and by time I had stepped up and grabbed the handle, I was opening the door to use it as a shield from the flames.”
That was the emotional account from Kojonup farmer Rob Warburton after a fire ripped through his farm on January 2, destroying more than $1 million worth of crops and machinery.
“Unfortunately the flames hit my hand,” Mr Warburton said.
“I was extremely lucky that I preach a “long and long” (clothing) policy over harvest, which I think saved most of my arm and my legs.”
It was a 28 degree day with strong westerly gusts when a fire, which burnt four kilometres of farm land and spread up to 2km wide, tore through Mr Warburton’s property.
The cause of the blaze is still being investigated, but it is believed to have ignited under the header.
It destroyed 100 hectares of standing crop and 300ha of stubbles and pastures.
Mr Warburton is still counting the costs of lost machinery, including a John Deere 90760 header, two chaff carts, 7930 John Deere tractor and chaser bin, New Holland 8970 tractor, grain bag loader, fuel trailer, a ute and a Mercedes truck water carrier, which had 5000 litres of water on the back when it burnt to the ground.
The second header, a John Deere CTS, lost its back wheels from the blaze and belts and wiring harnesses were damaged.
Mr Warburton hopes 190 tonnes of burnt barley, stored in a sausage bag, will be palatable for his sheep and 20km of fencing will need to be replaced after the fire damaged wire and poles.
He was in the header with his wife Jen, who had hopped in for a lap, when they noticed the paddock was on fire when they turned onto their next run.
Ms Warburton, who has multiple sclerosis, said it was unfortunate that she was there instead of their workman Grant Sermon.
“If Grant was on the chaser, not on the header with Rob, he would have noticed the fire earlier and we might have been able to put it out,” Ms Warburton said.
But Mr Warburton quickly reassured her that no one could predict what happened next.
“We were trying to put the fire out with the extinguisher but we didn’t know what to put out, both the header and the stubbles were engulfed in flames, so we just made a run for it,” Ms Warburton said.
“I just ran into the wind and stood between the fire and the bush, got my phone and called the neighbours.
“Usually I drop my phone when I get out of the header, so I was lucky to have it with me this time.”
Mr Warburton said he was confident his wife would be safe where she was, because the wind was pushing the fire east and she ran to the western side.
“The wind was way too strong to come back on itself,” he said.
“It picked its path and it was off.
“It honestly just happened so quick.”
Mr Warburton ran for the tractor which had flames up around it.
“It’s a good tractor so I knew it was going to start – well I hoped to hell it would start otherwise I would have been trapped in there,” he said.
“Of course once I took off back for the fire unit, the tractor was on fire so I jumped out of that and jumped into the firefighting ute as the tractor went up in flames.”
“I am so glad I didn’t run for it because there is no way I would have been able to beat it,” he said.
“People ask me if I would have done anything different and in hindsight I wouldn’t have gone for that fire unit.
“I would have just gone to safety.
“But the adrenaline kicks in and I didn’t have a phone to call for safety because that burnt in the header.”
Unfortunately there were two fronts to the fire, which almost cost Mr Warburton his life.
He was fighting the fire in the old Mercedes fire truck, trying to contain the edges to direct it to pasture paddocks, when the blaze came up behind him and surrounded the truck.
“But the fire came around the back of me as I was putting out the sides and I was trapped in the middle in this old truck, weighing over seven tonnes.
“The only option was to drive back through the fire and onto the black, kick the door out and wait for someone to pick me up.
“When I drove through the flames the truck caught fire, because of all the stubble and straw underneath, so it didn’t take long for it to go up in flames also.”
Mr Warburton said people had told him things to do during a fire, such as auger the grain out onto it or drive around it with the header comb cutting, which would slow it down.
But he said his header was on fire and, in that situation, he needed to get out as fast as he could.
“Having been through it once and hopefully never having to go through it again, I like to think the second time I would do it better with a bit of experience,” he said.
The fire burnt 200ha before half of the fire units called to help got there, about 100 units and four aerial bombers, helped fight the blaze.
Luckily the fire slowed down when it hit the barley crop, which Mr Warburton said was probably waist high and 5-6 tonnes per hectare.
“It just stopped,” he said.
“It was ferociously hot but hitting that amount of biomass slowed it down.”
At this point everyone fighting the fire had time to gather in the same spot and reassess the situation.
“We knew we would get it once it hit the neighbour’s paddock which was grazed out canola stubble, we had to just watch it burn our crop and continue to contain the edges of the fire,” Mr Warburton said.
“My biggest dread was at the back of the fire.
“I was scared a wind change would turn the back of the fire towards our house.”
During this time, Ms Warburton and their two daughters Lucinda, 16 and Zara, 13, had started to pack up the house and all their belongings.
The girls also focused on getting their two horses to safety, calling neighbours to come and help grab the horse floats.
Ms Warburton said all their things were packed into the car and ready to go as soon as they were told the house was at risk.
Mr Warburton said he was thankful and lucky to be alive having escaped with only a burnt hand.
The family is going through the process of making an insurance claim.
“It has given us a chance to have a bit of a rethink about our set-up and what we need to continue on for the next 12 months,” he said.
“Our machinery wasn’t worth a lot and you can’t get back enough money to repair what we had.
“We are all alive and everyone keeps reminding us of that.
“We had a moment, thanking that we are all alive, but now we have to sit down and think about what we have lost, financially.”
Mr Warburton was able to have a laugh about the situation when he described losing his blue thermos in the header cab.
“They (Thermos) bought out a vintage one which was exactly how they used to make them when I was younger,” he said.
“It had a nice top and it kept things hot for 24 hours, I just loved it.
“I am sure they made more than one so I will be hunting for a replacement, but still it’s devastating.”
Mr Warburton said his insurer would pay for additional items in the header, including the blue Thermos, but the payout wouldn’t go far by the time the yield monitor, moisture tester, GPS and other gadgets in a header, which weren’t covered with the machine, were added.
“I think we get $15,000 of extra insurance and a GPS plus the computers is up at $20,000, so that money doesn’t go far,” she said.
“It’s sad because aside from the fire, we were having an awesome season.
“Our barley crop was amazing, yielding six tonnes per hectare and the canola wasn’t too bad at about 1.6t/ha.
“The wheat also come out good in the end, still averaging about 4-5t/ha.”
When the fire hit they had nearly finished their harvest with 260ha left.
“The fire burnt 100ha of standing crop, so after the fire I still had to harvest 160ha of wheat and lupins, but we lost all of our barley that was left,” Mr Warburton said.
He said they were incredibly lucky they hadn’t yet moved the sheep onto the stubbles.
“One or two days later we were going to move 4000 weaner lambs onto those paddocks and being stubborn they wouldn’t have been easy to move in a fire,” Ms Warburton said.
The previous disaster to hit the farm was in 2005 when 3000 ewes in lamb died due to severe heat followed by a cold snap.
“It was April 1 and I will never forget that because it’s April Fools Day and I thought it must be a joke,” Mr Warburton said.
“We had 40oC plus for about a week beforehand, then all of a sudden the weather turned and we had southerly winds up to 60 kilometres an hour.
“The days hit a maximum of 10oC and we were right in the middle of shearing.”
Mr Warburton buried 3000 sheep into a mass grave 14 years ago in the same paddock where the fire started this year.
“It took us 10 years to get over that loss and get things back to normal,” he said.
“I guess economically my fire is about the same damage, but emotionally losing livestock is a lot worse.
“You couldn’t think of a worse way for a sheep to die.”
Mr Warburton questioned how many disasters a farmer had to go through in a lifetime on the farm.
“I hope no more than two because I don’t think I can take too many more of these,” he said.
Mr Warburton will forever remember this event with the marks on his hands reminding him how lucky he was.
“My hand is looking alright now as the skin starts to heal over,” he said.
“I am not allowed any sun on it until it heals, so I have been wearing a glove outside and when I drive.
“I also have to keep it moisturised and work it all the time so the skin doesn’t contract.”
Mr Warburton will have to protect his hand for the rest of his life because the melanin won’t come back and it will be susceptible to skin cancer.
“I will have to get into the habit of sun screening it every day or covering it up before I walk outside,” he said.