Fire break ploughed as blaze bore down

Lake Bullen Merri farmer Willie Hawker points out the stretch along the volcanic crater’s ridge where he faced down the approaching Gnotuk fire on St Patrick’s Day last year to plough a fire break.

If a fire had not broken out on Willie Hawker’s property a week before the St Patrick’s Day fires, the devastating Gnotuk blaze could have raged through Bostocks Creek into the Jancourt Forest and beyond.

Having just got into bed on the night of the fires on Saturday, March 17 last year, Mr Hawker got straight back up again with an afterthought to check the previous week’s blaze had not flared up again.

“It had been a stinking hot day and winds were absolutely horrendous,” he said.

“When I got outside the dust and smoke was everywhere and I could see a 15 foot high wall of flame coming across the far ridge of the lake’s crater to the north.

“I had no idea there was a fire – but it only took one look to know it was a big one and it was coming directly my way.

“Then I turned around and saw the glare of more flames to the west – that was the Terang fire coming down towards Cobden.”

Mr Hawker swung into action immediately, moving about 200 cows that were about to calve from a nearby paddock into the dairy yard of his Naroghid Road property on the edge of Lake Bullen Merri.

He then went across the road where he had more stock penned and brought them back to another side of the yard.

Once the stock were secured he ran over to the house and told his wife Rhonda to get the vehicles down to the road at the front gates – cars, tractors, four-wheelers, everything – and to take off into town.

With 2000 rolls of hay stored alongside a track on the ridge of his crater property, Mr Hawker knew it would only take one spark to set it up in flames.

“If that happened the house, sheds, machinery, everything, would have gone and the fire would have become an even bigger inferno and burnt through to who knows where,” he said.

“I thought to myself ‘what would Dad do?’ and knew straight away I had to put in a fire break.”

Choosing his older tractor with manual gears, Mr Hawker hooked on the plough discs and set about doing just that.

“I thought if I could put a fire break in front of the track next to all the hay, the firies would have a double break when they arrived – the break might just slow the fire down enough for them to have somewhere safer to fight it from,” he said.

“The plough is about 12 foot wide and I managed to plough about a kilometre along the top of the crater to stop it from getting in my hay and my neighbour’s place and then another 500 metres down into the crater to the water’s edge to stop it from getting into the trees at South Beach, because it really would have taken off if it had got in there.

“The dust and smoke and wind was that bad, I could barely see 12 feet in front of me, but I know every inch of my property – where all the holes and drop-offs are – and just kept going.

“In places it’s almost a vertical drop down into the crater – probably not really where you should be driving a tractor.

“By the time I came back over it a second time, to really turn it to dirt, the fire had crossed the flat and had come up the crater and was at the back disc of the plough.”

Mr Hawker said if things turned bad, he planned to simply drive through the fire front in the tractor to the already burnt land on the other side.

It was at that point local CFA brigade tankers arrived and were able to make use of the fire break and adjacent track to put the fire front out.

As embers and sparks blew across the paddocks and started more spot fires, Mr Hawker ploughed over them to put them out.

“We were just lucky the sparks didn’t get into all that hay. If that had happened it would have burnt for weeks and the sparks from it would have carried in the wind to who knows where, starting more and more fires,” he said.

“It could have been a much, much bigger disaster; the fire front would have just gotten wider and wider.”

The fire was estimated to have a 500 metre front and flames reaching about nine feet high when it crossed Mr Hawker’s property.

Thanks to the quick action, the fire front was put out at about 11pm that night, while the nearby Cobden/Terang fire burnt for a number of days.

In the light of day, Mr Hawker had lost 100 acres from his Naroghid Road farm, but had saved his cattle, home and sheds.

He also lost about 100 acres of land at a property he leased at Dixie to the Terang/Cobden fire and about 100 rolls of hay on land he owns on Joe Blakes Road, west of Cobden.

Ten kilometres of fencing was also burnt out.

“You wouldn’t read about it – three properties 20 kilometres apart, all affected by fires on the same night,” Mr Hawker said.

“When you get down to it, I did what I did to try and save everything we had here, everything we’ve worked so hard for.

“I wasn’t trying to be anyone’s hero, I was just doing what I thought I had to save what we had.

“It wasn’t all me either, the CFA did a great job and I really want to thank them for everything they did too.”

Mr Hawker said it had been a long and stressful recovery since St Patrick’s Day, but he was “still hanging in there”.

“I could have lost a lot more than I did, so that’s something to be thankful for,” he said.

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