By Tim Barlass, 16th November 2019

Coonabarabran residents in northern NSW looked on with a sense of deja vu at the forecast of catastrophic fire danger across the state this week.

It will be seven years in January since a fire that started in the Warrumbungle National Park in 2013 devastated properties in their area on what became known as Black Sunday.

Stephen Lill, owner of a stud farm, with his prized bull Red Valentino who was severely burnt in the bushfire and had to be put down – Credit: Jacky Ghossein

The blaze burnt 56,000 hectares, injured 28 firefighters, razed 56 homes and killed hundreds of livestock. At the peak of the fire, 100 residents were evacuated.

Residents blame the state government for mismanagement of the national park and have fought for compensation. So far, despite the damning findings of a parliamentary inquiry and the promises of the relevant minister, their calls have gone unanswered.

Farmer Stephen Lill lost 200 cattle that day – and the repercussions continue today.

“It has been a shocking six years: the fire, drought, the stress, the pressure, depression and break-up of the family,” he said.

His son, Martin, left the farm soon after he had to bury the bloated bodies of their cattle. On top of that, he and his wife, Elaine, are now separated.

Mr Lill’s farmhouse is on the Chadwick Downs estate and along with the loss of cattle, his Royal Show champion bull Red Valentino suffered burns to 40 per cent of his body.

Semen from the bull had been sold around the world. But Mr Lill had to shoot him.

Those who lost their properties said government agencies failed to extinguish or contain the fire.

The fire on the road between Coonabarabran and the Warrumbungles on January 13, 2013 – Credit: Mark Barrow, reader

A NSW parliamentary inquiry into the bushfires released in 2015 said the government had a moral obligation to expedite compensation to fire-affected communities if it was found to be liable for a blaze.

“It is already two years since the fire and people are still faced with the uncertainty of whether they will be duly compensated for their losses,” the report said. “They continue to suffer emotionally, financially and in their community relationships.”

Then Shooters and Fishers Party MP Robert Brown, who chaired the upper house inquiry, said in 2016: “My recommendation to these farmers is if the government doesn’t start talking to them shortly I would be looking at legal avenues.

“The findings of my inquiry clearly indicated that the government needs to look to immediate compensation.”

Stephen Lill after losing 40 kilos.

Minister for Police and Emergency Services David Elliott said on Friday that the NSW government had stood alongside the community affected by the Wambelong fires.

“This support has included $62.5m including direct assistance to restore essential public assets and assist small businesses, primary producers and individuals through concessional loans, subsidies and grants.”

Mr Lill said that the comments from the inquiry meant compensation should be paid. There was also the comments of a coroner who said timely hazard reduction and preparation for fire suppression would have reduced the likelihood and impact of the fire.

“It has cost us $1.5 million of direct costs plus the loss of family, the loss of my wife and now we are looking at selling the whole property and we’ve had the drought on top of that,” Mr Lill said.

“We are not the only ones. It has broken up marriages and the doctors are treating half the population for depression. I’m battling along. I’m not taking any pills and I have physically lost 40 kilos and I feel very fit now. Physically I’m OK and mentally I believe I am as astute as ever but, in the heart, I have been mortally wounded.”

Now he has 400 cows instead of 4000. The market for Australian bull semen has collapsed due to international currency changes. Argentina, once a big market, has established its own bloodlines from Red Valentino’s offspring.

A buyer in Alice Springs who had taken 1400 bulls over the years said he did not want any this year. The bulls cost $10 a head to feed daily because of the drought. Mr Lill can accept the drought but said the injustice of the fire still hurts.

“Most of the people who were burnt out are going to die. There’s six dead already and six families have moved away,” he said.

The 75-year-old farmer said all his properties would probably be gone by the end of the year.

“It’s just been such a horror story but I’ve never missed a meal yet in my life … I’ve got a lovely daughter and good, caring friends; my wife’s sisters are very supportive.

“I feel OK within myself … I’m not going to go and blow my head off. I’ve got another 10 years of good times.”

In 2016-17 the NSW government provided the RFS with $5.2m in support for its hazard reduction programs. It also provided $2.5m for fire behaviour analysts and bush fire awareness. The government invested in weather balloons and portable weather stations to enable the NSW RFS to conduct ‘real time’ assessments of weather conditions on a fire front.

John Shobbrook who lost his home and who heads the group seeking compensation said: “Over the past week I have seen Premier Berejiklian on television, with a look of grave concern on her face, standing beside various Rural Fire Service officials. No doubt her heart went out to those who have fallen victim to this latest outbreak of bushfires.

“From my experience her heart can quickly turn cold if you raise the question of compensation for a bushfire which, through a series of blunders, escaped from NSW Government controlled National Park.”

Lifeline: 13 11 14, Beyondblue: 1300 224 636

‘Mortally wounded’: how bushfire ruined the lives of Coonabarabran residents
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