Fire has dealt a cruel blow to livestock producers doing the best they can to manage drought.
The enormous Bees Nest fire, which flared up early last week, roared out of the Guy Fawkes National Park on Friday to encompass more than 63,000 hectares, claiming cattle and well managed pasture in the Hernani and Marengo districts.
Wilmot manager Stuart Austin, crowned the young carbon farmer of the year late last month, had been carefully rotating trade cattle and breeding cows, continuing to turn a profit in spite of the drought before the fire claimed half of the 1000ha property east of Ebor.
"You do all you can to look after your grass but I never thought we'd see us burnt out," said the experienced manager who battled numerous grass fires while working in the Northern Territory.
Mr Austin is still assessing the damage to fences and timber yards. Breeding cows that were moved from a Walcha property as drought refugees will be sold along with more than half the trade cattle.
"We were behind in our feed budget and now we will be further behind," he said. "It will be a lean ship this year."
In the least affected parts of the property flames licked the top and only burnt dry feed but in other areas the earth is scorched bare. In the past seven years Wilmot has managed to double its soil carbon profile but some of that will now have been lost to the atmosphere.
"We lost carbon," he said. "A fair chunk of the ecosystem was gone overnight. I've been through fires but I was scared witless on Friday night. the wind was that intense and the smoke that thick and low. We knew flames were spotting but we couldn't see half a kilometre in front. The RFS crew did the best they could. It was a miracle we didn't lose the houses."
Further north on the outskirts of Tenterfield, on Friday, a swiftly moving grass fire sent a firefighter to hospital, where he remains in intensive care, before escaping away past Billirimba and down the eastern escarpment, consuming more than 3000ha. Phones lines were cut in the vicinity.
Gary Pitkin was in Tenterfield when the blaze threatened and raced home, relieved to find his wife Nancy had already moved cattle out of the line of fire.
"Of our 160ha there's 16 that aren't blackened," he said. "There's fences down, timber yards burnt.
"The fire came upon us from three fronts - over the hill, where cattle had been, up the creek and along the road. Lucky for us a Townes Contracting grader was there with Jim Allan Bulmer's water truck and RFS crews."
Mr Pitkin said his neighbour Jim Landers had been about to celebrate his 84th birthday when the fire arrived but he jumped on his tractor, with disc plough already attached, and drove laps around their house and the shed next door.
"That effort went a long way to saving them," Mr Pitkin said.
Also on Friday a fire at Long Gully, south of Drake, erupted under wind pressure and continues to burn, blackening more than 32,000ha.
Richard Hart helped his parents Tony and Leanne defend their Plains Station Road property on Saturday as the fire raced towards the Clarence River, crowning trees in the scrub with an unseasonal intensity.
"Embers were coming down 200 and 500 metres away, then 1.5km in front of us," he said. "The fire was jumping over the whole farm. It followed the fuel. West of us there was a lot of that, a lot of rough country with no cattle in it and no fuel reduction for about 20 years."
While winds lifted dust west of Armidale they also fanned a spot fire along the Walcha Road at Kentucky with Bruce Gardiner's experimental farm taking the brunt of the heat.
The retired farm planner who advocates for 70 per cent ground cover, adequate leaf litter and green leaf area, species diversity and shade and shelter through trees, lost 20 per cent of his 40ha farm including about 1000 trees along a windbreak, all of them resilient natives that should return. The fire stopped dead at his fence, as beyond that there never was anything to burn.
Mr Gardiner's approach to resilient farming includes an emphasis on organic matter, not just sequestered carbon, and he estimates livestock carrying capacity based on a 12 month rolling tally of rainfall. A small mob of trade cattle purchased in April were sold last month after putting on 80kg/head because the rainfall figures pointed to les feed and more cost as the season wore on. It was fortunate Mr Gardiner emptied his paddocks before the fire.