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Farmer devastated by natural disasters feels 'abandoned' after falling through the cracks

Friday September 10, 2021 - 22:14 AEST

More than 20 months on from a massive bushfire razing fences and pasture on his farm, Gerry Swindale says he feels "abandoned".

Mr Swindale's 283-hectare cattle farm at Birdwood on the NSW Mid North Coast had suffered from years of drought before 2019's horrific Black Summer bushfire season.

He says having the fire burn through his property has been the most devastating of all.

"The fires that hit our place were the result of two fires joining west of us," Mr Swindale said. 

"They were driven by 80kph winds and travelled 16 kilometres in 12 minutes.

"It was so intense that everybody from the other side of the valley said, "Well, Swindale's place is gone."

Mr Swindale said if it wasn't for his son Justin, who was on the property when the fire hit, he would have lost everything.

"All our neighbours could see was this massive fireball behind our property, but what they couldn't see was my son running from one fire hose to another trying to protect our properties," he said.

Justin managed to save all the buildings on the property, but about 95 per cent of farm's fencing and pasture was destroyed.

"Those fires wiped out what I have now had costed by three different fencing contractors to be more than $500,000 worth of fences. 

"My problem is we have 170 head of cattle, but they are spread all over the countryside.

"Until we've got fences and until I can complete rebuilding our stockyard, we can't bring them in, we can't retain them, we can't load them, we can't sell them."

Not eligible for financial support

Mr Swindale said he initially thought his insurance would cover the damage.

?We thought that our fences were covered by insurance, only to learn in the fine print, they are not," he said. 

Following the fires, the Emergency Bushfire Response in Primary Industries Grants Program established by the state and federal governments gave eligible primary producers access to a $75,000 grant to help with recovery efforts. 

To be eligible for the grant, producers had to have earned more than 50 per cent of their income from their farm, which wasn't the case for Mr Swindale. 

"Most farmers got the $75,000 ... but because we have got a small wood flooring business in Sydney we've got off-farm income," he said.

"Just because we have off-farm income doesn't mean we can afford to fix all the damage on our farm."

He has since reached out to more than 20 different government departments and agencies for support, but nothing has come from it.

"They all say, 'I'm sorry Mr Swindale but you fall through the cracks'."

Not-for-profits lend a hand

Mr Swindale has received some assistance from BlazeAid, but the organisation could only manage to help with a small portion of the issues on his property. 

"We had a couple of weeks of work from their crews before, as I understand, they ran out of resources," he said.

A BlazeAid Taree spokesperson says the group are still working with Mr Swindale to help put up a boundary fence. 

The NSW Small Business Commissioner raised Mr Swindale's situation with Disaster Relief Australia (DRA), a not-for-profit organisation, that enlists veterans and emergency first responders to assist after a natural disaster.

"We were told that they were going to come and pull down our burnt-out fences, that they would clear the line and put up new exclusion fencing," he said.

"We were ecstatic with joy. We felt finally someone was listening to our struggle."

Then came the floods

DRA was set to arrive at Mr Swindale's property a few months after Christmas, but during the wait, disaster struck again with March's devastating floods. 

"Under normal circumstances, we are not affected by floods because we are on the high side of the river," Mr Swindale said. 

"These floods were quite unusual, the volumes of water that came through were just extraordinary."

The once-in-a-century flooding event damaged Mr Swindale's property even more. 

"We've had one small dam totally wiped out," he said. 

"I had a second dam so heavily eroded that all that was left was 18 inches of the dam wall, so we were close to losing that too."

Areas of the property were also heavily eroded. 

The $75,000 recovery grants were again made available to primary producers, but it was deja vu for Mr Swindale. 

"They said again, we have off-farm income so we aren't eligible," he said.

"We were just devastated."

Still in need of support

Ben Patrick and his team from DRA arrived on the Mid North Coast after the March floods.

Their initial task to help bushfire victims had become much bigger. 

"What we found in this area is that there was at least twice as many jobs as we had the resources to get to," Mr Patrick said. 

"I really wanted us to get in there and help Gerry because I could see how much of a difference, a bit of effort would make to the quality of life."

Over two days a DRA team removed burnt-out fences.

"I could see that we could contribute in a small amount at Gerry's place, but we had priorities in other places, trying to get people back into their houses," Mr Patrick said.

"We were able to clear several hundred metres of the fence line, but there was a tremendous amount of fencing left."

Mr Swindale says he appreciates the help he's received, but can't help but feel unsupported by the government. 

"It's not an easy situation for us to put up our hand and say we need help," he said.

"After months of reaching out to government agencies for support, it seems it has fallen on deaf ears, we feel abandoned."


© ABC 2021

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