On one farm that supplies milk for ration-pack cheese an Army strike team cleared fallen trees from paddocks, saving a grieving family an estimated month’s work.
CAPTION: A cow at the dairy farm of Tim Salway, near Cobargo, New South Wales, takes an interest in the work of Australian Army soldier Private Luke Breese of the 2nd/17th Battalion, Royal New South Wales Regiment, as he cuts up a fire-damaged tree. Photo and story by Sergeant Max Bree.
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A raging inferno killed Tim Salway’s brother and father when bushfires tore through the family dairy farm near Cobargo, NSW, on New Year’s Eve.
But, as Mr Salway returned to their ravaged 600-acre property, milking the cows had to come first.
“I knew my old man and brother were lying there just over the hill, but we had to get the cows in,” Mr Salway said.
“You can’t afford to miss because they start getting udder issues.
“That was the hardest milking I’ve ever had to do, but you couldn’t just stop and say ‘that was a bad fire’.”
About 170 of the Salway’s 350 cows were lost in the blaze.
Help arrived in the fires’ wake, including an Army strike team to clear and pile up fallen trees from the paddocks, saving the family an estimated month’s work.
“They ripped in with chainsaws, they smashed through, their bosses kept asking me ‘what next?’,” Mr Salway said.
“We’re able to get back in these paddocks, we’re able to work the land again. In time we’ll be able to burn these heaps [of wood].
“They cleared our driveway and just driving in makes you feel better.
“Things like this keep you going, as tough as it is for our family.”
Lieutenant Aiden Frost, of the 2nd/17th Battalion, Royal New South Wales Regiment, commanded the strike team that arrived for two days of work on 14 January.
They also brought water and an Army chaplain to counsel the Salways.
“The intensity of the fire basically ripped all of the trees out of the ground and created huge amounts of debris which rendered the paddocks sort of unusable,” Lieutenant Frost said.
“The farmers have been overwhelmed.
“We can’t solve the whole problem, but in a couple of days our guys have been able to clear significant amounts of the property, which will eventually allow their cattle numbers to recover.”
Strike teams such as those commanded by Lieutenant Frost are working to assist communities in south-east NSW in the wake of the bushfires.
His team has 26 soldiers from Army’s 5th Brigade, mostly infantrymen and combat engineers supported by a medic and signaller.
Four of the infantrymen completed an Army chainsaw course while the team was staging at Holsworthy.
“One minute we’re helping fix fences to stop cattle getting on the road and the next minute we’re out doing engineer tasks like inspecting culverts and bridges, or felling and cutting up trees” Lieutenant Frost said.
“Even if it is just basic manual labour, the team is really glad to be able to help.”
The Salway’s farm provides milk to Bega Cheese, the same company that makes canned cheese for Australian Army ration packs.
The company couldn’t process the Salway’s milk for 10 days after the fires, meaning it had to be dumped, but Bega Cheese still paid for it.
The company also provided the family with generators, to keep things running until power was restored.
“We take for granted where everything comes from,” Lieutenant Frost said.
“Guys like these farmers provide milk to make cheese for ration packs or the supermarket – everyone knows the struggles they’ve had.
“Then to have a fire devastate their farm – and lose family members – is the last thing any of these people needed.
“At least we can show that the people of Australia and the Army cares about them.”
When the Army team finished at the Salway’s property, the family had worked for 15 days straight, with no end in sight.
“It wasn’t a fire, it was a monster, like a tornado – it’s something I don’t want to see again,” Mr Salway said.
“The family down the road lost five houses. Up the road, out of about seven houses, there’s only one left.
“I’ve been trying to say it’s not that bad, but when the Army turns up to help you it must be pretty bad.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: As a former dairy farmer and former soldier, this story really touched my heart.