4 October, 2022
Fires destroy livelihoods
MILLIONS of dollars’ worth of crops and irrigation equipment in Chewko, Mareeba and Bilwon went up in flames last Tuesday, with a 37-year-old local man now facing 13 counts of arson.
Facing court last week, Chewko resident Danny Pietrograzia was remanded in custody to reappear on 17 October after prosecutors opposed Mr Pietrograzia’s application to be released on bail, arguing it would pose an unacceptable risk to public safety
The fires erupted around 1.30pm Tuesday, farcing property owners on Tinaroo Creek Road, Bilwon Road and Chewko Road to fight blazes alongside emergency service crews as 13 separate fires destroyed the crops of several harvest ready farms.
Residents in the Chewko area were being told to prepare for evacuation by 3.33pm as flames became uncontrollable and smoke started covering Mareeba’s CBD.
Police made an emergency declaration at 6.08pm under the Public Safety Preservation Act, encompassing Granite Creek in the west, Roiko Road and Chewko Road to the North, the Kennedy Highway to the east and Springmount Road to the south.
A total of 33 vehicles and 100 Queensland Fire and Emergency Services staff from brigades across the region spent the evening tackle the blazes that continued to destroy everything in its path.
The declaration was revoked at 6.43pm after hours of extinguishing the 12 fires and police confirmed they were all deliberately lit, beginning a 24-hour search for the culprit.
Although a majority of the blazes were under control, seven vehicles remained on standby, with three responding to active blazes the next day.
Local farmers Joe and Veronica Bacchion lost all of their irrigation, three quarters of their lime plantation and their entire lychee population only weeks before their biggest harvest yet.
The fire spread rapidly through their Chewko Road farm, with no hope for a harvest this year at all.
“The flames were a good 30 metres high and because of the bit of wind, it just came through full force,” Mrs Bacchion said.
“We are not sure what to do at the moment, it’s an expensive road to take because we lost all of our pipes and irrigation in the fire. A few metres of polly pipe will cost you up to $7,000.
“The flames came all the way to the top of the house. While Joe was out fighting the fires I was in the house with the kids (two toddlers and a three-month-old baby) trying to keep them safe.
“Our main priority right now is get-ting water again just in case something happens again. The trees are pretty well cooked and I don’t think they will come back but it’s hard to know at this point.”
Left with nothing but melted pipes and ash, the Bacchion family cannot see a future for the farm, with their next steps unknown.
“Looking at it now, if we were to completely replace the farm it would cost over $1.5 million,” Mr Bacchion said.
“The price of everything is going up, it would cost a lot of money to build the farm back up.”
There is a GoFundMe page to help support the Bacchion family. To donate, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/bacchions-fire-fund
Local sugarcane farmer Claude Santucci lost eight hectares to the blaze on his Chewko Road property and is “gobsmacked” that someone in the community could commit such an act.
“I’m cranky and disappointed that there are individuals out there who carry on with this sort of activity for whatever reason,” he said.
“I hope whoever has done this feels the full force of the law and suffers the consequences – I cannot believe some-one could stoop this low.
“Thankfully we didn’t lose any buildings, and no one got hurt. I could have lost the whole farm, houses sheds and equipment.”
Mr Santucci was amongst fire fighters and other neighbours putting out the flames into the evening and has spent the last few days doing his best to recover as much of his crop as possible for the sugar season.
In Bilwon, the blaze came within 20 metres from Gina and Giovanni Galati’s home and 500m away from their well-established citrus farm.
Although they feared for their home and their crop, the couple had a plan and is encouraging everyone to have one to.
“Living here, you get used to what is happening in the environment, so we were prepared,” Mr Galati said.
“We have had four fires here since 2019 so we know what to do when this happens. I find there are a lot of new people in town who don’t know what they are doing.”
Mrs Galati said she was thankful they have a well-kept lawn that stopped the blaze coming any closer and for the people who pulled up to help.