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    You may be wondering what this is all about & what is "the red steer"? Well that is a very old pastoral term for a fire that is out of control. Anyway I was going through some photos and bumped into the images from a trip we did in 2012. Brought back very clear memories of the time that for an afternoon and a night we had a bit of trouble with a small fire.......I’ll slip in some photos that line up with the text.

    Connie & I were leading a trip in 2012 following the route taken by the Forrest Brothers in 1873-1874 which by chance you can follow by road & track these days if you link the right ones into a single route. It’s an interesting tour with plenty to see if you do your research and know what to look for. On this occasion we had just re-joined the Gunbarrel Highway after a detour and were heading toward Geraldton Bore. For most of the day we had been watching a column of smoke to our north and the weather had been warm with some light winds, it was September so those conditions weren’t unexpected. As we peddled up the Gunbarrel toward the corner at Trig NMF 23 we started to get much closer and started to see the extent of the fire front.


seeing smoke

Heading up to NMF 23 on the Gunbarrel Highway.


smoke from NMF 23

This is the fire to the west when we pulled up at NMF 23.


    Pulling up at the corner where the ground is higher we could see the fire burning off to the west maybe a kilometre away and that light wind had started to push from the west. The fire seemed stable and didn’t appear to be moving from where we were looking at it.

    We were waiting at the corner for a couple of vehicles from our party that had fallen behind as they were taking pictures of flowers apparently, normally this isn’t a problem and perfectly normal. In something like 5 minutes of us pulling up the fire started to grow in height and the front began moving toward the road. As we watched, the fire probably doubled in size and the increase in intensity was astonishing. I thought we had better get our group together so called up the lagging vehicles and told them to get up here as quick as they could before they were cut off. They must have been a fair way back because only minutes later the fire roared over the road behind us with no sign of our two travellers.


Fire about to cross the road

This picture was taken 9-10 minutes after we pulled up near NMF 23.
Fire about to cross the road.


    I called up again on the UHF and I got the response they were in the fire front but on the move. It was 12 minutes from when we had stopped at NMF 23 to when the last two vehicles re-joined us.


Our vehicles on the way

Our two vehicles coming through the fire, one on the left track & one on the right.


same zoomed

This is the same photo zoomed in
(11 minutes from when we first stopped).


    They were both in one piece but some of the plastic bits on vehicles & trailers didn’t look like normal. We didn’t have time to spend having a look. The situation change in that short amount of time was simply incredible. We’ve seen plenty of fire in the desert over the years but this went off like a bomb.

    The fire was consuming the road behind us with flames 20m high and the wind generated by the fire itself was now quite strong. The front began spreading to the north and I guess in every direction which included where we were parked on the Gunbarrel Highway. Getting mobile again we rounded the corner onto the east-west straight looking for somewhere to get out of the flames. I started looking at a patch of country next to the road which wasn’t heavily covered by spinifex and Peter (retired farmer) lit it up hoping we’d have enough time to burn ourselves a black patch to park on for safety. No luck at all judging by how the fire front was coming over where we had just been on the NMF 23 corner. The fire was already spotting along the road in front of us. I didn’t think we could survive the radiant heat of a main blast anyway even if the flames didn’t get us. We had run out of time and Bill (another retired farmer) sang out.....

    "We have to go!"

    That sounded like solid advice, a quick glance around we could see that to the north was clear of fire so with little options left we started bush bashing (no road or track) north. Within minutes the road behind us was engulfed in a huge front as the spinifex blew up with the heat.


Spot fires

Spot fires already ahead of us heading east the way we were going – not good.


    After several kilometres of pushing north we started to look for a clear spot to pull up and defend ourselves as it had come to that. At four kilometres we found a more open patch of spinifex with no other scrub. We pulled up and finally had a chance to look south over the country where the Gunbarrel Highway passes through. Everything in sight to the south near the road was ablaze, to the east was ablaze and moving at a speed that was simply unbelievable and we now had fire to our west once again, with the wind that would be coming our way. It was only a matter of time. Thoughts of going further north to escape the front were abandoned when we could see smoke beginning to appear in that direction as well. Our thoughts then were that things might just get interesting!

    Nothing else for it but cut out a safe spot and see what happened. Every shovel in the convoy was brought out and for one or two hours we cut spinifex from the ground stacking it up away from our clearing. We eventually had a patch about 75m long by 25m wide. All the vehicles were pulled onto our "break" and lined up close together. A few of us keep shovelling during the late afternoon pushing our clearing out a little larger on the western side. We were safe enough for the moment. I had proposed to burn a patch for us but some of the party had seen enough fire and it would make a dirty camp with everything turning black as we went about our jobs.


Clearing a camp spot

All hands on deck shovelling a clear spot to camp on.


Cleared a camp spot

Our cleared camp 4kms north of the Gunbarrel – best we could do on short notice.


    Nobody was in the mood to set up camp of any description so most of the folks just pulled up a chair and watched the show with a cuppa. It was an awesome sight in a horrifying way. I estimate that the fire went over the horizon to the east in about half an hour, that’s about 30-40 kms as we were still on a rise in the ground and that part of the desert is largely flat. I had no doubt we would have been in very serious trouble if we had stayed anywhere near the road. This was confirmed the next day when we continued our "adventure". As darkness fell the only area not on fire was to the north-east. Every other direction was glowing or we could see the flame fronts directly. The only good thing was that the wind eased up into a gentle breeze as the sun went down.


Watching the fires

Not much of a party atmosphere. Can’t understand why!


    A simple plan was devised if there was any wind change we would begin back burning around our camp and keep it up as long as necessary. Strangely enough we didn’t have a camp fire that night. Folks had a cold feed or cooked on gas. Connie & I did the same and when I was satisfied all was well I went to bed about 9:30pm (after having a feed and fixing a flat tyre) with instructions to wake me if the wind picked up or shifted direction. Figured I would need the sleep before the night was over.

    Connie woke me about 11:00pm. The breeze had swung enough to push the nearest front to the south-west in our direction. So as planned a few of us got busy burning around our entire patch, things went with a whoosh early as the great bundles of spinifex we had shovelled up burst into flame then settled down as we kept pushing the patches of volatile grass to ignite. All the while the various fire fronts crept closer from the south, west, south-west & north-west. The breeze ultimately settled and was just enough to tickle things along so they spread in all directions instead of being pushed by the wind on a single bearing. There were multiple lines of fire everywhere except that north-east sector, it remained clear all night.


back burn

Our back burn with multiple fire fronts in the background.


back burns


    We were still burning off in the early hours of the morning having a spell now and again to take in the live action playing out in front of us. By daybreak I was on my own as the rest had retired to bed and I was largely just sitting & watching. The danger by then had passed and the coming day looked bright, clear and thankfully calm. As folks began to stir I got my camp gear together and went and set-up the camp dunny, something that didn’t seem that important the night before. Having done that job Connie & I went on a recce’ along our wheel-tracks onto the road to just see how things had gone overnight. Heading off in our Defender we found that of the four kilometres we had travelled from the Gunbarrel to escape from the fire only a couple of hundred metres remained unburnt. The other 3800 meters was completely toasted. Where we chose to defend ourselves by some freak of luck was about the only place that didn’t get hit hard, quite unbelievable.


The next morning

Leaving camp to assess the situation for our group.


    Once on the Gunbarrel we turned east toward Geraldton Bore which was only a few kilometres away. As far as you could see in every direction it was black with just the odd few tufts of spinifex still visible where for some reason the fire went round them. The few Bloodwood trees were completely black but still had the crowns intact. Nothing else remained. If we had remained anywhere near the road I believe we would have made the National News as soon as someone came along and found us. Thankfully we found Geraldton Bore intact as the little roadways acted as a break around the pump keeping it safe. We brought up a little water glad to see that the gear was in working order. There didn’t appear to be any active fronts so with that knowledge we went back to camp to see how our folks had fared for the night. Our intention being to carry on the trip, what else could go wrong?

    Back at our "refuge" camp things were getting back to normal. We got a fire going to boil billys and have breakfast then had a look at any damage sustained from the escape yesterday. A few things needed seeing to before we got underway so the early morning was spent getting things back in order. Once packed up we had a talk among the group and then we headed on our way safe in the knowledge that for the moment another fire couldn’t get at us, there was nothing to burn! Before we left camp we were surprised to see a light aircraft pass overhead. We later remembered that and a few things made more sense.

    We stopped at the Beadell Plaque right near Geraldton Bore. The big old Bloodwood had copped a hiding but was intact and the blaze still held the aluminium plaque, a replica that Connie had put up in 2003. Both the tree and the plaque were black, we couldn’t fix up the tree, mother-nature would see to that but we could clean up the plaque. Connie dug into her maintenance gear for the plaques that we always carry and produced some steel wool. Fifteen minutes later the plaque looked as good as new and after a few photos we went the couple of hundred meters down to the Bore. Another cuppa for most as water was pumped to refill tanks & jerries and a few washed their hair. As I don’t have much hair left I didn’t bother.....


Len's singed Bloodwood tree plaque

23 mile west of Everard Junction plaque Bloodwood – a bit black.


Len's singed Bloodwood tree plaque

Plaque looking a little worse for wear.


Plaque cleaned up

A bit of steel wool did wonders.


Plaque 2003

2003 – Anne Beadell, Doug Stoneham & Connie after putting new plaque up.


convoy at plaque

Our party parked at Len’s plaque tree the next morning.


Geraldton Bore

Getting water from Geraldton Bore hand pump.


    From Geraldton Bore we headed south on the Hunt Oil Road, this track doesn’t get a lot of use compared to the Beadell Tracks so having a heap of it burnt off up north was a change from pushing through spinifex and wondering about your radiator and whether it’s building up underneath your 4WD somewhere. As the saying goes every cloud has a silver lining! After about a dozen kilometres heading south we came to the edge of the fire. It was still alight but as it was still early the temperature hadn’t built up and the wind had not started in earnest. We passed through the little low flames without incident and made camp about 50 kilometres south of the Gunbarrel early in the afternoon.


Hunt Oil Rd

As we went south on the Hunt Oil Road we crossed the last of the fire.


    A nice little Mulga camp with open camp spots and plenty of wood beckoned. Perfect after a long 24 hours. We had a late start the next morning, one of our travellers cooked a cake and Connie produced some fresh scones from the Camp Oven. Everyone enjoyed the morning off with a few treats. They had all earnt it in spades.


well earned treat

Connie's fresh scones from the camp oven for smoko.


    We found out later that the fires were a scheduled burn from the WA "sparks & embers" mob, or whatever they called themselves that week. Apparently they did an inspection flight the morning after dropping incendiaries and did see our party. Funnily enough the Gunbarrel Highway was closed to travellers very soon after on the western end. All we could think of was it was a bit late by then! There had been a Burn Notification pinned on the wall at Carnegie Station and I had read the thing & dismissed it, the burns were slated for July or August. Our little adventure began on the afternoon of September 18th 2012.

    The next year we travelled the Gunbarrel once again. Out of interest we wanted to see how far that fire had burnt to the east. We started to see fingers of burnt country more than 50 kilometres from where we saw the fire start from.


Safe travels
Mick Hutton
Copyright: June 2021



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