27 October 2023

National parks-lit blaze torches Lakeland properties

| Sarah Martin
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A backburning exercise was underway at Mt Gibson Station, but now Lakeland residents are desperately trying to stop a wildfire from destroying their properties. Photo: Steve Ahlers.

A fire lit by Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service just days before an unprecedented Cape-wide total fire ban has escaped and burnt out hundreds of thousands of hectares of private property near Lakeland.

On Thursday (26 October), exhausted residents were facing another night of backburning with the huge blaze holding steady at containment lines on Mount Gibson Station.

Despite initially denying any responsibility for the fires when questioned by Cape York Weekly on Wednesday (25 October), and laying the blame on arsonists, QPWS admitted on Thursday that a planned burn had escaped.

“On 10 October, QPWS began a planned burn near Piccaninny Creek in the Mount Windsor National Park,” a QPWS spokesperson said.

“The planned burn moved beyond containment lines and has impacted on neighbouring properties and bushland.”

The impact was definitely felt in Lakeland, with The Brothers station owner Steve Ahlers and other residents left fighting a 40 km firefront on their own.

“Lakeland Downs has been half burnt out, my sister has lost half of everything and if we can’t pull it up, it’ll burn out Laura,” Mr Ahlers said.

“I think it’s burnt 400,000 hectares so far. It’s come right through the hills from Mount Windsor through the back of Maitland and cleaned out a big area.

“My poor sister and her husband are in their 70s. Everyone is there fighting it. We were out until 2 am and we’ve been out the last few nights.”

Another Lakeland resident, who did not want to be named, said one QPWS unit had been assisting in the firefight, but it wasn’t until several days later that more units arrived to help.

With fires burning across the Cape and ravaging the Darling Downs and other areas of Queensland, resources are stretched thin, but Queensland Fire and Emergency Services still scrambled crews to assist Lakeland.

A QFES spokesperson said the firies weren’t notified of the out of control burn until five days later, on Sunday (15 October).

“QFES actively engaged with QPWS and landholders in response to this fire, with strike teams supported by aerial assets, including water bombing and intelligence-gathering aircraft,” they said.

Mr Ahlers said somebody in QPWS needed to be held accountable for the disaster.

“When the rest of the country is on high alert, they seem to be able to invent a fire permit in-house and feel that they’re not responsible for their actions,” he said.

“Somebody needs to be held accountable.”

Thick smoke from the Cameron Creek Road fire, just past Cooktown’s airport, was visible for kilometres.

The blaze comes on the back of repeated arson in the Cape, with fires ravaging Piccaninny Plains Wildlife Reserve, threatening the township of Aurukun and burning unchecked across swathes of cattle country and bush last week, as well as a blaze near Cooktown which threatened homes on 22 October.

A total fire ban has been in place for the local government areas of Aurukun, Cook, Douglas, Hope Vale, Kowanyama, Lockhart River, Mapoon, Napranum, Northern Peninsula Area, Pormpuraaw, Torres, Weipa, Wujal Wujal, Cairns, Yarrabah, Cassowary Coast, Mareeba, Tablelands, Croydon and Etheridge since 19 October.

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Lynette Ensor12:32 pm 02 Nov 23

I live at the Palmer River where we had several anxious days waiting to see if the fire would jump the nearest creek, which is less than 1km from us, which would put us in danger. After speaking to a couple of the volunteers that were fighting the fire they talked about the so called “HELP” they received from National Parks. Apparently the rangers didn’t know how to back burn safely. They would start a fire and just let it burn, not setting small fires that can be contained, which is the usual practice. They also had very little or no water and many of their water trunks weren’t capable of pumping water from dams (they needed to filled from above). Worst of all, the choppers that were monitoring the fires were coming down too close to the freshly burnt areas and the downdraft from their rotors was spreading sparks and the fire. I’m not having a go at the rangers themselves, they did a mighty job. My problem is with the training they get and the fact that National Parks even lit the initial fire. For the last 2-3 months we have had 20-30km/hr winds everyday. Why did the Fire Warden give them a permit to burn? Surely when we were and still are experiencing such dry, windy conditions here at the Palmer and this whole area, why was it authorised at all? The minister needs to review the National Parks burning policy urgently, as it’s dangerous. The fire here at the Palmer and in Lakeland is just one of a few occasions that I know of when the same thing occurred. Every body needs to contact Leanne Linard – Minister for the Environment and the Great Barrier Reef, Email: [email protected], Telephone: (07) 3719 7330 and demand action be taken. She should also ensure that the property owners that have been severely impacted by the actions of the National Parks be compensated as soon as possible, as they don’t have enough grass now to feed their stock. Name withheld.

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