‘The scariest thing I’ve gone through’: South Stirling farmer reflects on 2018 fire as legal battle looms

Headshot of Adam Poulsen
Adam PoulsenCountryman
South Stirling farmer Mal Thomson.
Camera IconSouth Stirling farmer Mal Thomson. Credit: Bob Garnant/Countryman

“I saw a puff of smoke in the Stirlings and thought, ‘s**t, what the hell is that?’”

Mal Thomson still gets unsettled when he recounts the moment he first noticed the prescribed burn that caused an estimated $5 million worth of damage to his South Stirling farms.

Three days later, on May 24, 2018, the volunteer firefighter found himself fleeing a wall of flames as the blaze ripped across his property after escaping the Stirling Range National Park.

“I was in the fire truck with one of my workers, Peter, and my stepson, Rhys, was in a ute with our neighbour,” he recalled.

“They were south of us and we had a direct northerly wind coming straight over the Stirlings. It was doing probably 100km/h at this stage, and Rhys got on the 2-way radio and said ‘get the f**k out of there, there are spot fires 500m in front of you — you’re gonna get stuck’.

“We took off and at the same time Peter started screaming, ‘I’m getting hit by fire balls’.

“I looked in the rear vision mirror and the fire had come through a creek line and, about 100m behind us, there was a 10 or 12m wall of fire just roaring towards us.”

His vision obscured by smoke and dust, Mr Thomson was luckily in a paddock he knew like the back of his hand.

“I knew we sowed the paddock north to south; I could see the stubble and the seeding lines, and I knew where the gate was,” he said.

“I took off at about a 20-degree angle to the seeding lines because I knew if I went too straight, I would have run into some pines and got stuck, but if I went too sharp I had bush on the other side.

“I remember driving flat out, thinking ‘this is gonna be hairy — we’ll be lucky if we get out of this’.

“I don’t know how, but we got it exactly right. The next-door neighbour and my stepson saw the flashing lights on the truck, so they followed us, and luckily they got out as well. It was probably the scariest thing I’ve ever gone through.”

When Mr Thomson first saw smoke on Monday, May 21, he was concerned but not alarmed.

He soon learned the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions had set off a prescribed burn not far from his neighbouring farm, and continued to pay close attention over the coming days.

One of Mal Thomson's farms in early August, 2018, three months after the fire.
Camera IconOne of Mal Thomson's farms in early August, 2018, three months after the fire. Credit: Mal Thomson

By the time he went to the local country club on the Thursday evening, the fire was the talk of the town.

“Someone showed me a video on Facebook… and now you could see the fire on the top of the Stirlings,” Mr Thompson said.

“I thought, how the hell did it get there? It was, way, away from where we’d been, so I raced home and the fire radio was going crazy.

“They were asking our neighbour if he could see the fire… he said it wasn’t doing much, but had just gone past Two Mile Lake and was heading above my farm, which is at the foot of the Stirlings, so I cut in and said ‘I’m home, I’ll go out and have a look’.

“I jumped in the fire truck and we went out the back and it was howling winds by now — you could see jack s**t, it was just black.

“At that stage the far paddock on the west of us lit up, but it was burning towards a salt lake so I wasn’t too worried. It was thin barley stubble and it tore across that part of the paddock extremely quick.

“Then, the next paddock south over a creek line lit up. It was also barley stubble, but this was a bit more serious so we thought ‘we better try and put this one out’.

“We raced over to it, but by the time we got there it was probably 15-20ha in size, and there were little fires starting up all around us.”

Gnowellen farmers Tony and Jo Slattery, left, Kojaneerup farmer Craig Nelson, and South Stirling farmers Mal and Marie Thomson.
Camera IconGnowellen farmers Tony and Jo Slattery, left, Kojaneerup farmer Craig Nelson, and South Stirling farmers Mal and Marie Thomson. Credit: Bob Garnant/Countryman

It was at that point Mr Thomson’s stepson raised the alarm, and the two vehicles made their escape.

Back at the farm, the decision was made to evacuate.

“By the time everyone decided to get out of my farm — which only had one way in and one way out — the fire had burned probably 8-10km in about 40 minutes,” Mr Thomson said.

“It had burned through mine and my neighbour’s farms and then re-entered another farm of mine.

“In under two hours it had burnt over 12km, through three farms, and started on my third farm (the fourth farm overall), where we were able to control it.

“It still shakes me up now when I talk about it. It was probably the luckiest day of our lives because we didn’t lose any lives, sheds, machinery, or the house, and we got it under control so quickly.”

When he returned the next day to inspect the destruction, the landscape resembled a desert.

“I went out the back of the first farm burnt, because I knew there were sheep out there,” Mr Thomson said.

“For a second I thought it all might have been a bad dream because there was no smoke and at first glance nothing was black. But when I drove into the paddock where the sheep were, reality set in.

“One of my neighbours found me and told me to leave the farm — that they would clean up and euthanise the sheep scattered over the paddocks.

“There were trees that had fallen over and been buried under the sand movement... but there wasn’t a bit of ash. All the farms that got burnt were completely bare. The fire just went through, burnt everything and it was gone.”

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails