How Walcha is recovering from the worst storm in living memory

HAMMERED: Local farmer Angus Kirton surveys wrecked trees on his property Bilbrooke. Photo: Nicholas Fuller
HAMMERED: Local farmer Angus Kirton surveys wrecked trees on his property Bilbrooke. Photo: Nicholas Fuller

It was the worst storm to hit Walcha in living memory.

Winds of up to 190 km/hr tore through the shire around 8.30pm on Thursday, December 20. The storm only lasted about 20 minutes – but left a trail of devastation in its wake.

More than 70 properties were damaged; hundreds of thousands of trees brought down; and clean-up is estimated at millions of dollars.

Townsfolk and businesses were left without power for four days, and without internet or phone connections for a fortnight.

“For some people, it has left a scar that will never heal in our lifetime,” mayor Eric Noakes said.

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Walcha town escaped the worst of the storm. It lost the odd tree, and limbs out of trees – but, Mr Noakes said, “it got off pretty well unscathed compared to what it could have been.”

For farmers like Angus Kirton, though, it’s been a disaster.

"We got hammered; we bore the brunt of it," Mr Kirton said.

Mr Kirton and his wife Lisa have worked hard to make their 900-hectare property Bilbrooke productive, easier to run, and resilient through dry spells.

Now, they’re looking at a bill of nearly a million dollars to get the farm back to where it was before the storm.

The centre of the storm (300 to 400m wide) tore their heavily timbered property to pieces.

Drone footage of the storm damage at Bilbrooke. (Henry Kirton)

Thousands of trees came crashing down, killing stock and wildlife. Falling branches smashed tractors, and broke sheep's bones; Mr Kirton lost a dozen animals. A month before the storm, the Kirtons saw a koala climbing a gum tree; that tree has since toppled; and hundreds of birds have died.

Their property looks like a Western Front battlefield, strewn with the corpses of trees, tangles of broken limbs and twisted branches.

The Kirtons will need heavy earth-moving gear to clean the mess up. That is estimated to cost anywhere between $800,000 and $1 million – and could take up to 17 months.

"I'm not too sure how we're going to afford it,” Mr Kirton said. “I can't sit here and look at this mess, and go, ‘Well, we can't afford to get a dozer in’. The problem is we can't afford not to tidy it back up.”

Photo: Nicholas Fuller

Photo: Nicholas Fuller

At the start of 2018, the Kirtons were financially comfortable; agriculture was rosy – but the drought has put them under financial pressure. Like many farmers, they’ve got core debt, and have spent $355,000 so far on feeding their stock.

"We're good farmers; we would have seen our way through it; backed off, rationalised,” Mr Kirton said. “This – to use a technical term – f...s it all."

When the Kirtons bought the property in 2004, the abundance of trees was one of its attractions. Twenty per cent of the land was timbered, providing shelter for stock, and encouraging birds, which reduced the insect burden: “all those wonderful things that go together to make a sustainable ecosystem.”

Now, a third of the property has been damaged by the storm; 60 to 90 per cent of the trees in 300 to 400 hectares (six paddocks) have been severely affected. Much of that area, Mr Kirton fears, will not recover.

All his other paddocks have trees down. They’re just stumps in the paddock, which need pushing out and tidying up.

The fallen trees will harbour weeds and rabbits, and could be a significant bushfire hazard. 

Because the paddocks can’t support as many sheep, stocking rates are down, and the Kirtons won’t be able to sow autumn crops in the paddocks this year.

Photo: Nicholas Fuller

Photo: Nicholas Fuller

"It's just heart-breaking to me," Lisa Kirton said, "because I know how much work he's put into the farm. It's going to take a long time and a lot of money to fix it up. Those trees are gone forever, and all the wildlife... Having it devastated like that is just upsetting."

The Kirtons spent Christmas working to clean up some of the property. Their family were out there wielding chainsaws and driving tractors; friends came over to help them make the boundary fenceline stockproof.

"My friends have been bloody fantastic; my family's been awesome,” Mr Kirton said.

"My heart has been so full of love for the care and appreciation for all the help we’ve had from family and friends," Mrs Kirton said.

Photo: Lisa Kirton

Photo: Lisa Kirton

Council are still collating information to assess the extent of the damage to the shire.

“This obviously happened at a bad time over Christmas," Mr Noakes said. "It's hard to get a lot of information."

Mark Waring of WalchaEnergy said the wind gust speed of 52m/s (188 km/hr) was the highest recorded at the Kambala monitoring mast in 10 years of measurements by a long way. The 10 minute mean was more than 30 m/s – 108 km/hr (at the top of the mast) for two 10-minute periods.

Walcha town was left with limited telephone (mobile, landline, internet) connections for a fortnight after the Telstra 3G mobile tower was knocked out. Businesses had no EFTPOS facilities over Christmas, so fuel stations, coffee shops, and gift shops lost trade; and people's personal mobiles were out.

The town suffered a power outage for four days. Essential Energy acted quickly to restore power, flying in people from across state to restore power.

Walcha mayor Eric Noakes. Photo: Nicholas Fuller

Walcha mayor Eric Noakes. Photo: Nicholas Fuller

"Essential Energy were fantastic," Mr Noakes said. "Under the circumstances, it’s amazing they can get that amount of infrastructure back up and running. Their problem wasn't centralized; it was spread over the whole council area. They got it all fixed. It's a credit to them."

Council is lobbying for Walcha to be declared a disaster zone, eligible for clean-up funding. They have submitted paperwork, and hope it will be approved soon. Mr Noakes understands it will make Walcha available for government loans through the NSW Rural Assistance Authority.

A public meeting will be held on Monday, January 14, at 3pm at the Bowling Club.

“It will be a chance for people to get together and talk about the storm, and see what the government and Telstra can offer in the way of compensation for these businesses and private people," Mr Noakes said.

Member for Tamworth Kevin Anderson MP and Member for New England Barnaby Joyce MP will attend, as will Telstra’s northern manager.