Words by: Anne Hardie

The day Michael and Cheryl Shearer had to evacuate their family and herd of cows from their home near Nelson, the forested hills behind were a red inferno against the evening sky.

A few kilometres away, a hop farm with a disused dairy and a couple of paddocks became the temporary home for the 360-cow herd with donated supplementary feed to keep them milking once a day while the Shearers waited to see what happened next.

The couple are sharemilkers on a Teapot Valley farm, surrounded by forestry that was part of the massive Tasman wild fire which covered about 2500 hectares. It’s pretty much a dryland farm that was already suffering in the prolonged dry which prompted water restrictions of 65% on neighbouring Waimea Plains.

The steep hills on the farm had been parched for weeks and the little irrigation spread on to lower paddocks added a bit of green, but not much growth. Despite that, the cows were still looking good and milking well on once-a-day milking.

Then fire raced through the tinder-dry forest, sweeping over the hills behind and beyond so that at first, they thought they had escaped its danger, only to have it turn back and attack from another direction.

“It went past us and I didn’t think too much of it,” Michael says. “We milked the cows on Thursday on the farm and I thought they had it sorted. Then the wind picked up and it started back to us.

“Two hours later we were evacuated. We’d put the cows down the end of the farm to keep them out of the way of the fire and we were lucky we did. We went in about seven at night and shifted them through the river – there was a red inferno up behind us and I thought the shed had gone.”

With the cows out of harm’s way, he went back to the farm with one of the many contractors heading in to carve great fire breaks in front of the fire, including one around the dairy. Through the night the machines continued to create some protection for the properties below the forest.

“It was pretty crazy,” Michael says of that night. The next day wasn’t much better, sorting out what to do with the herd which was used to being milked in the morning.

The nearby Ealam family at Spring Grove milked cows until converting their property to hops during the past couple of years and they had offered some paddocks and the use of the still-functioning 20-aside dairy, so that is where they headed.

“That first day was a nightmare – seven of us here with one in the shed and six trying to put the cows in. They were stressed, hungry and angry. Not in a good mood.”

Fortunately, the cows were used to a herringbone dairy, with a 30-aside on the home farm, though milking 360 cows through a dairy with just 20-aside lengthened milking to a three-hour exercise.

At the same time the cows were coming to grips with their new routine, the Shearers and their young family, plus staff, had left home with few belongings and were being accommodated elsewhere.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Michael concedes in probably the understatement of the year. “The worst part is having to tell everyone what is going on and they want to know ‘how are you feeling? What’s your plan?’ I don’t have a plan.”

The cows settled down after a couple of days and though there wasn’t a blade of grass left in their paddocks, they had good silage that Ealams had on hand for drystock and balage was being donated by West Coast farmers.

A week after being evacuated, there was still no news of when they could return to the farm in Teapot Valley and much of the farm had fences destroyed by fire breaks, while the irrigation pond had been emptied to fight the fire. Depending on the insurance outcome and just what that would cover for them as sharemilkers, one of the likely options was drying off the cows.

“It’s going to take months to get the place back together. When the fire is eventually put out, that isn’t the end of it. We’ve got fire breaks everywhere. They came in with bulldozers and diggers, starting around the outside and by the time I got there at night they’d gone through the middle.

“Certainly no complaints – they saved our shed from going and probably a couple of houses. They’ve got to do what they’ve got to do.”

At one stage six helicopters were taking water out of their irrigation pond – even managing two helicopters at once filling their monsoon buckets – in the fight to contain the fire which raged in the hills.

As the Shearers waited to hear when they could return to the farm and what they would do with the herd for the rest of the season, the hop season was just about to get under way which is a hectic time with tractors continually carting vines to the kiln. So Michael was keen to find out whether they would have to dry the cows off and get a plan in place.

The Shearers were some of more than 3000 people evacuated from homes during the wild fire which began on February 5 and swept through forested hills bordering farmed valleys and the village of Wakefield which was included in the evacuation.

Rural Support Trust coordinator for the region, Barbara Stuart, says the economic cost to the region was huge, but the human cost emotionally was just as large.

Some of the Government funding to speed up the recovery of rural businesses would go towards coordinating contractors to get fences and water systems reinstated in the affected areas, once there was the all-clear to get back into the valleys, she says.

The costs and ramifications of the wild fire combined with severe water rationing in areas such as the Waimea Plains has been put at more than $100 million.