Walcha storm area declared a disaster zone

Walcha storm area declared disaster, government assistance on offer


The declaration opens opportunities for help to both the council and farmers.


Walcha has been declared a natural disaster area after the catastrophic storm of December 20, and will receive government funding to help recover.

The declaration opens opportunities for help to both the council and farmers.

Mayor Eric Noakes said the news was a relief for the town.

“This will mean a lot to council in their costs of cleaning up our lengths of roadway, and repairing fences along there,” he said.

“It will also bring some surety to landholders that there will be assistance available to them now.”

Walcha will receive financial assistance through the jointly funded commonwealth-state Disaster Recovery Funding Arrangements (DRFA).

The DRFA provides:

  • Help for eligible people whose homes or belongings have been damaged;
  • Support for affected local councils to help with the costs of cleaning up and restoring damaged essential public assets;
  • Concessional interest rate loans for small businesses, primary producers, and non-profit organisations;
  • Freight subsidies for primary producers; and
  • Grants to non-profit organisations

The council will assess the cost of the roadside clean-up, and put in its claims to the Office of Emergency Management.

Farmers will be assessed individually on their needs, and have been asked to liaise with the Rural Assistance Authority for this.

The council was still looking into what assistance would be available for farmers.

"We've got to delve a little bit deeper into the policy and the legislation to see how it fully affects people," Cr Noakes said.

​The local government areas of Clarence Valley, Dungog, Mid Coast, and Warrumbungle have also been disaster-declared.

Assistant Minister for Home Affairs Linda Reynolds said the effects of the storm were still being realised.

How Walcha is recovering from the worst storm in living memory

Clearing up from the worst storm to hit Walcha in living memory could take more than a year say locals.

Back in December, winds of up to 190 kilometres an hour tore through the shire leaving a trail of devastation in its wake.

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

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

Mayor Eric Noakes said it had left a scar “that will never heal in our lifetime”.

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.

Walcha mayor Eric Noakes. Photo: Nicholas Fuller

Walcha mayor Eric Noakes. Photo: Nicholas Fuller

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.

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.

Photo: Lisa Kirton

Photo: Lisa Kirton

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.

"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."

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