By CAITLIN CROWLEY
DARLING Downs farmers will meet with local police early next month after a recent surge in rural crime has left dozens of farming families shaken and facing huge financial losses.
Damage to electrical and irrigation infrastructure caused by criminals looking for copper wire is putting additional pressure on growers, with frequent power outages disrupting irrigation schedules at a critical time in the cotton season.
Speaking exclusively to the Caller, a Cecil Plains farmer who recently had his vehicle (pictured below) and thousands of dollars worth of tools stolen in an overnight raid said the situation was “hectic” and farmers were feeling forgotten by police.
The man, who asked not to be named for his own safety, said trespassers had become a frequent occurrence in the Condamine Plains area and some properties had been robbed multiple times in a matter of weeks.
“Our electrician had wired up a set of silos for a farmer because all of the wires had been stripped off it. The same thing happened a week later – it’s that dire,” he said.
“Farmers are pretty gentle people usually, we’re not the wild wild west. It feels like we’re caught on ‘Yellowstone’ – but we’re not ‘Yellowstone’ ranchers.
“We’re that busy looking after our own crops, we don’t think we should be in charge of working out all this crime.”
The farmer said locals were noticing more suspicious behaviour, such as unfamiliar vehicles driving in and out of properties and flashing their lights at all hours of the night.
“Definitely I’d say they’re scoping the area out,” he said.
“When it’s irrigating time here, we’re pretty much on call 24/7 – we’re up all random hours of the night. Now it’s got to a point that you question every light and when you approach them, it’s scary.”
Cecil Plains cotton grower Stuart Armitage said the community was on edge, particularly families with young children.
“Kids are frightened – some of our grandkids will go and make sure all the doors are locked. These are 7 year olds, 5 year olds,” he said.
“Now we are just wondering when we are going to get robbed.
“We’re all spending 10 to 15 thousand (dollars) on security – it’s another cost we really don’t need.”
Condamine MP Pat Weir told the Caller that while vehicles and equipment were still frequent targets, the theft of electrics and particularly copper wire had skyrocketed.
“I’m hearing stories of people who are having vehicles pull up, they’re turning on the house lights and they (intruders) still approach the house,” he said.
“Really scary stuff and people are scared.”
There’s growing frustration around the lack of local policing, with no officer currently stationed at Cecil Plains.
“It just feels like we’ve been forgotten out here,” one grower told the Caller.
“We don’t want it to get to the point that a farmer ends up in jail for protecting his property.
“It’s not the way we want to shape the future for the next generation. We want them to feel safe out here. If we can’t feel safe out here, it’s not a great lifestyle.”
Pat Weir said he was aware of community concern around police staffing in the area.
“I know they (residents) get frustrated that police don’t turned up – but the police are saying, ‘We are flat. We have no spare officers sitting around anymore,” he said.
“I’ve talked to a senior police officer, he told me he’s been in the force 25 years and he’s never seen it this busy. That’s really saying something.”
The theft of copper wire has also become a major safety concern for Ergon, with crooks going to extreme and dangerous lengths to get their hands on the product.
Ergon spokesperson Brett Judge said they’d seen a significant increase in copper theft from the overhead and underground network across the state and were worried someone was going to get hurt, or worse, “for the sake of a few bucks”.
“We’ve seen some shocking incidents, including one earlier this year where a thief attached a car to a live 11,000-volt underground cable, which was secured to a pole,” Judge said.
“The live cable was torn off the pole and when it hit the ground a flashover occurred, starting a grassfire.
“Last year a person armed with an axe struck a power pole multiple times in an attempt to steal copper wire, sparking a pole fire and an emergency power outage.”
On the Downs, farmers have found themselves at risk of losing cotton crops because of damage to irrigation equipment, or lengthy power outages while repairs are made due to copper wire theft.
One grower couldn’t use his bore for six weeks because all of the starter equipment has been stolen.
“They’re causing 10, 12, 15 thousand dollars worth of damage for a few hundred bucks,” Stuart Armitage said.
“You can’t ring up and replace it the next day.”
Earlier this month a Downs agronomist saw thieves trying to pull wires out of a council-owned electric sign (pictured below) on the side of a country road.
“At 6.15am myself and a grower watched people break into it from behind,” he said.
“It was like watching mice run through the kitchen.”
Darling Downs Country Patrol Group Inspector Danny Shaw acknowledged the surge in copper wire thefts recently and said other police resources such as the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) and stock squad were being utilised, while a new officer was being recruited for Cecil Plains.
“We’ve just gone through the recruitment process and there has been someone who’s nominated so hopefully we will have someone very soon,” he said.
“In recent times, particularly at Pittsworth, we’ve had quite a bit of success around people who have been stealing copper and committing some break and enters within the area.”
Condamine MP Pat Weir is hosting a rural crime information morning with police at Nangwee on April 5 to provide residents with strategies and advice to stay safe.
The resident who spoke exclusively to the Caller said he wanted to see “more vigour from local politicians” in advocating for change.
“It’s disgusting – there’s no hope of anything changing out here,” he said.
“We’re not seeing any resources being allocated to this region.”