The Personal Survival Kit – Part 1: the “Survival Tin”

I want to show you something I made up a few years back.

My Personal Survival Kit

My Personal Survival Kit

It’s a relatively compact survival kit designed to be worn on a belt or even carried in a pocket. Evoking the romance and adventure of the special forces operative or a downed airman trapped behind enemy lines, the Personal Survival Kit (or PSK) is a staple among experienced outdoorsmen and their chairborne, keyboard-wielding colleagues all over the internet. Kept on your person at all times, it’s the last-ditch after the enemy soldiers have stripped you of your pack and webbing prior to your heroic escape. It contains vital tools to help you dodge the Gestapo and survive unaided until you can rendezvous with the Maquis agents who will smuggle you down the rat line to freedom.  That’s the general idea anyhow.

Let’s take a look at what’s in my kit:

Contents of the belt pouch

Contents of the belt pouch

The pouch itself is made from a very tough and hard-wearing ballistic nylon cloth. Inside the pouch we have a clear plastic 70 litre bag, we have a specialised survival kit knife which doubles as a spear-tip or an arrowhead, and we have a waterproof, shockproof, crushproof and dustproof Otterbox 1000 tough case containing the kit itself and a 1m paracord lanyard attached to the case.

The pouch has loops on the back which allow it to be carried on a belt, or if you’re feeling particularly “tactical” the loops are MOLLE compatible, so you can mount your kit to your plate carrier or tactical vest. If you haven’t guessed yet, this post contains a heapin’ helpin’ of dry sarcasm. In an emergency, you can cut up the pouch and add the cloth to your fire to make black smoke for signalling purposes. The press snaps can be removed and polished with sand to make a shiny lure for fishing, and the… I’ve got nothin’ – there’s probably a bunch of other uses for the nylon pouch aside from simply carrying the kit and mounting it to your belt.

The 70 litre plastic bag is a genuinely useful item. It can be used as is as a transpiration bag (look out for a future post on this particular method of harvesting drinking water), it can be modified for use as a rain coat, opened out it can waterproof a shelter or can be used in a solar still. Torn into strips, it provides light lashing cordage and when burnt, it gives off a black smoke.

The Otterbox case is too heavy, too thick and too bulky. Although it protects the contents of the kit from becoming crushed or sodden, there’s nothing in the kit which is susceptible to either crushing or water. It’s overkill, single-use and heavy. But it looks cool, huh? “Just let me open my MILSPEC ruggedized personal survival kit case…” says the hero in his deep, husky voice. The lanyard is a great idea. I’m a fan of military issue 550 paracord since it’s very strong when used as is, and when stripped, that one metre of paracord will provide 7 white 1 metre inner strands of cordage, a 1m coloured manufacturer ID strand (like a thick cotton thread), and of course the green nylon tubular outer sheath. So that’s a total of 9 metres of useable cordage just from this 1 metre length of 550 paracord.

The knife… read on.

A genuine special forces survival kit knife

A genuine special forces survival kit knife

This tiny little double-bladed knife was designed to be carried in a military issue personal survival kit (or E&E kit as they called it). I have a couple of issues with this knife – first of course is that it’s double-bladed. Makes it very difficult to handle effectively when cutting. You can’t baton with it and if used as a wedge on the hardwood timbers from around these parts, you’d end up hammering the knife into the wood and would have to burn it out to retrieve it. Plus, it’s really difficult to sharpen. The sheath is great though and it also houses my stainless steel trace wire, which I have exiled from the otterbox because the end seemed to be forever poking holes in my teabag. Being an item which is not susceptible to shock, dust, pressure or water ingress, this knife resides in the pouch next to the otterbox rather than inside it. In fact, I’m going to end up selling this knife – it’s kind of useless for real-world use, but since it’s an Australian SAS-issued item, it’s got some collector value.

Now the otterbox. Let’s look inside –

The box opened.

The box opened.

It’s not very big, but it holds a surprising number of vital survival items.

Contents of the right side of the Otterbox

Contents of the right side of the Otterbox

1. 2 metres of US military issue sand-coloured tripwire. Used as snares or as repair / baling wire.

2. 5 metres of braided nylon cord. Used as general cordage, or can be stripped down to individual strands.

3. Physer SGI brass button compass. The classic British military “escape” compass – so tiny it can be swallowed and retrieved later, or can be sewn into clothing or set into a uniform button. Originally designed for use in escape and evasion kits during WWII. I’ll be doing a separate post on the history and use of these compasses. This particular compass has a bright yellow zip tie attached for better visibility and to the zip tie has been tied an inner strand of paracord as a lanyard or necklace. These compasses are so tiny, they are very easy to lose.

4. 10 feet of heavy thread. Used for sewing, as light cordage or as a fishing line.

5. Folded 30cm length of cloth duct tape, useful for field repairs of transpiration bags and such. Between the layers are four safety pins – used as general fastenings or as improvised fish hooks, and two magnetised large sewing needles – used for sewing or as an improvised compass needle.

6. Leatherman Micra multitool. Contains a multitude of useful tools including good scissors and a razor-sharp cutting blade.

7. Generic mini multitool. A lower-quality version of the Leatherman Micra, but also includes pliers for working with wire or for moving hot objects from a fire.

8. Doan Magnesium Bar military firestarter – a rectangular piece of magnesium alloy with a ferrocium rod (“flint”) set into one side. Despite requiring two hands to use, the Doan mag bar is one of the most reliable sure-fire fire starters available anywhere. To use, you shave a coin-sized amount of magnesium from the bar into a pile and then light it with the ferro rod. The resulting flame is white-hot and will ignite almost any tinder you throw at it.

9. Very basic fishing kit. 4 or 5 hooks of various sizes, 3 x split shot sinkers and a couple of swivels. Used with the heavy thread or with inner strands of 550 paracord.

10. Fox 40 rescue whistle. Works wet or dry. Very loud and shrill.

11. Glass signal mirror. This is a US Air Force small-sized signal mirror. About the same size as a credit card, it works via a retroreflective grid for precise aiming. It’s too heavy, but it’s the only signal mirror in its class that I trust. I’ve had starflash and rescueflash acrylic mirrors delaminate and become useless just from sitting inside the Otterbox in high temperatures I’ve encountered on various trips.

12. A metre of heavy-duty aluminium foil. Can be fashioned into a vessel to boil water or cook food, pieces can be used as a fishing lure, pieces can be used to leave a trail for search and rescue, it can be used as an improvised reflective ground to air signal panel, it can be used as a “veldt blanket” by placing half over each kidney under clothing before sleeping. The reflective material will work like a space blanket, reflecting your body heat back at your kidneys, thereby keeping your circulatory system warm and spreading that warmth throughout your body – that’s the theory anyway.

13. A large scalpel blade. Used in conjunction with an improvised wooden handle sourced locally. Best option for clean and accurate skinning and cleaning of smaller game and fish.

left-side

14. 1 Quart (just under 1 litre) Nasco Whirl-Pak resealable laboratory sample bag. Food-grade, it can be used to both carry water and sterilize it (using UV from the sun). Very useful item.

15. A tea bag. A tea bag is the one comfort item in the kit. Even if you’re not a tea drinker, it’s a morale-booster, can flavour water or food, and the bag can be used, squeezed dry and used again a few times. When completely bone dry, the bag makes good tinder for a fire.

16. Fresnel lens. Credit card sized magnifying lens great as a fire starter on a sunny day. Can be rigged to allow an improvised candle or slush lamp to throw more light, or can be used with the signal mirror to extend the range (to a certain degree).

That’s a typical military/survival-style personal survival kit. Seems relatively squared away? A pretty good attempt? I think it’s a train wreck. In fact I think the whole “survival tin” idea is a bad philosophy for the serious outdoors type. let alone the professional soldier or pilot.

Many consider John “Lofty” Wiseman to be the spiritual father of the cult of the survival tin, pointing to the kit he describes in his “SAS Survival Guide”. Using Lofty’s special forces pedigree as their social proof, companies such as BCB in the UK jumped on the survival tin bandwagon and if you wanted to be cool out in the bush, you’d better have a decent combat survival tin.

Diagram from Wiseman's "SAS Survival Guide" showing "Lofty" Wiseman's idea of a survival tin. He has been misinterpreted.

A diagram from Wiseman’s famous “SAS Survival Guide” showing his idea of a survival tin. He has been misinterpreted.

The current incarnation of BCB's Combat Survival Kit.

The current incarnation of BCB’s Combat Survival Kit. A book of MRE matches AND a ferro rod for lighting fires? Oh stop it BCB, you’re spoiling us.

Bushcraft, survival, professional military, backpacking and even zombie hunting forums all over the internet have proven just how popular the idea of the survival tin remains. One small tin containing all the vital equipment to help a lost hiker/injured bushcrafter/downed aircrewman survive in the wilds until they are rescued – it’s admittedly an attractive concept, but it’s not one that Lofty or his SAS colleagues ever embraced or promoted, and in this writer’s opinion, neither should you. There are far better, more workable options for carrying an emergency survival kit which go far beyond some trinkets in a tobacco tin.

In the next post in this series we’ll look at Lofty Wiseman’s holistic approach to survival kits, examine a couple of historical WWII examples of survival kits, and then take a look at my solution.

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The Bullet Pencil – A Timeless Love Story

Long before the very cool Fisher Space Bullet Pen, there was the bullet pencil. A masterpiece of simplistic and purely functional design, the bullet pencil was little more than a pencil housed in a spent rifle cartridge, traditionally a .303 British cartridge.

Shaped like some heavily-chromed art deco rocket, it writes underwater, upside down, in zero G... Inspired by the humble, old fashioned bullet pencil.

Shaped like some heavily-chromed art deco rocket, the Fisher Space Bullet Pen writes underwater, upside down, in zero G… Inspired by the humble, old-fashioned bullet pencil.

The first recorded instance of the bullet pencil appears in the late 1890s. With Britain’s various colonial adventures in Africa (South Africa and the Sudan) came a surprising new niche industry – the commemorative battle souvenir peddlers. Ghoulish opportunists picked over the battlefields at Omdurman or Ladysmith stepping over dead enemy and friendly casualties as they collected thousands of spent rifle and Maxim gun cartridges. These were sent back to Jolly Old England in bulk for processing into cheap writing instruments to be sold at a premium as battlefield souvenirs or whatever they called trench art prior to World War I.

The "Omdurman" propelling pencil souvenir, created from a .303 rifle cartridge apparently used during that battle in the Sudan in 1898. Source - http://www.vintagepens.com/Omdurman_pencil.shtml Link is worth a read if you're curious about British colonialism as it relates to early 21st Century conflicts. Beware, your googling will probably lead you to adesire to watch "Khartoum" or one of the many cinematic adaptations of AEW Mason's The Four Feathers. Don't say I didn't warn you...

The “Omdurman” propelling bullet pencil, created from a .303 rifle cartridge apparently used during that battle in the Sudan in 1898. Source – http://www.vintagepens.com/Omdurman_pencil.shtml . Link is worth a read if you’re curious about British Imperialism as it relates to our own early 21st Century conflicts. Beware – your googling will probably instil in you a desire to watch Khartoum or one of the many cinematic adaptations of A.E.W. Mason’s The Four Feathers. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…

The cartridge cases were cleaned and polished, while special sterling silver or nickel-plated brass “bullets” were cast. Into these nonfunctional projectiles were initially were set one of a variety of propelling pencil mechanism.s To use, one simply removed the “projectile” from the cartridge, reversed it, advanced the graphite “lead” and wrote, sketched or scribbled to one’s heart’s content.

The Omdurman pencil configured for use.

The “Omdurman” propelling bullet pencil configured for use. Unwieldy, unbalanced and inelegant compared to later versions.

The next time we see the bullet pencil is 1914. As Britons prepared for what must surely be the end of the war at Christmas time in 1914, Her Royal Highness The Princess Mary was preparing her own special Chrissie prezzie for every man who “wore the King’s uniform”. This special Christmas gift took the form of a comfort package packed inside an ornate brass box issued to every British and Dominion serviceman and woman. Contents varied, but the standard box contained – a packet of pipe tobacco, a packet of cigarettes, a  Christmas card and envelope, a photograph of Princess Mary and a pencil made from a spent .303 cartridge case.

A composite 1914 Princess Mary gift box. Image from - http://militarychristmas.tripod.com/marybox.html

A typical 1914 Princess Mary gift box. Image from – http://militarychristmas.tripod.com/marybox.html

The Princess Mary bullet pencil was much-simplified when compared with the turn-of-the-century models. Although it also used a spent .303 cartridge case as a base, it used a bomb-proof half-pencil set into a decorative “bullet”. There were no moving parts, nothing to rust or corrode and both the cartridge case and the pencil could be replaced very easily, even on the front lines. Befitting a royal gift, the cartridge case was highly polished, lacquered and monogrammed with the Princess Mary’s seal while the “bullet” was pressed and formed from a sheet of solid sterling silver. Shorter than the earlier versions, the Princess Mary bullet pen was the perfect size for carrying in a trouser or shirt pocket under the combat conditions seen on the Western Front prior to the 1915 stalemates that led to a 3-year-long trench warfare meat grinder.

The 1914 "Princess Mary" bullet pencil as included in the Christmas 1914 gift tins for Commonwealth troops. Simple, clean, easily refillable... Although you have to wonder how many ended up being accidentally chambered in a Lee Enfield rifle or a Vickers Gun.

The monogrammed 1914 “Princess Mary” bullet pencil as included in the Christmas 1914 gift tins for Commonwealth troops. Simple, clean, easily refillable… Although you have to wonder how many ended up being accidentally chambered in a Lee Enfield rifle or a Vickers Gun.

WIth the idea of an ever-so-useful pencil made from a cartridge case deeply ingrained in the consciousness of millions of British Commonwealth Great War Veterans, it was just a matter of time before the concept was exploited commercially on a large scale. In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, trinket manufacturers in the United States sold hundreds of thousands of bullet-style pencils made from brass or aluminium and plastered with labels advertising everything from hot dogs to sports teams to agricultural equipment to funeral homes to national monuments. These were often handed out as freely as business cards are today.

1950s-vintage commercial bullet pencil advertising an American paint company.

1930s-vintage commercial bullet pencil advertising an American paint company.

No longer made from actual spent cartridges, the US bullet pencils retained a superficial resemblance to a .30/06 cartridge fitted with a round-nose projectile. Considered cheap and nasty at the time, many of these cheap, commercial bullet pencils were so well made, and constructed of such durable materials that they have survived well into the second decade of the 21st Century. Indeed, this writer has been lucky enough to have bought a bulk lot of vintage bullet pencils, which is sufficient as a lifetime supply. Original metal advertising bullet pencils from the 1930s, 40s and 50s can be had very cheaply if you’re in the right place at the right time. Check eBay or Etsy for bargains.

A 1940 US patent drawing describing a bakelite-cased bullet pencil.

A 1940 US patent drawing describing a bakelite-cased bullet pencil… the beginning of the end.

The commercial bullet pencils advanced the design to its pinnacle in the 1950s by the addition of an eraser stuck in the end and a detachable pocket clip. With the advent of mass-produced moulded celluloid and other early plastics, the stage was set for the fall of the mighty bullet pencil.

Modern sports-industry, mass-produced plastic bullet pencil

Modern sports-industry, mass-produced plastic bullet pencil

Although highly popular with farmers and golfers, the bullet pencil found its niche in the United States through its adoption by Baseball, Basketball and Football umpires as their industry-standard, in-game writing instrument. The bullet pencil was the perfect shape and size to be carried unobtrusively in the front slash pockets of the umpires’ horrible black polyester trousers. The umpire’s love of the simple, but effective bullet pencil sucked the mojo right out of it. Brass and aluminium was replaced with soulless white plastic, and the pencils became mass-produced in automated Chinese sweat shops. The time of the bullet pencils had come to an end, and the original vintage metal commercial pencils became sought-after collector’s items.

The modern Midori raw brass bullet pencil

The modern Midori raw brass bullet pencil

Instructional diagram which comes with the Midori brass bullet pencil.

Instructional diagram which comes with the Midori brass bullet pencil.

Then came the Renaissance. Japanese stationer to the hipster masses, Midori plugged into the nostalgia surrounding the bullet pencil and released their own version. The Midori bullet pencil echoes both its military and commercial bullet pencil heritage, wraps it all in some clean, elegant and minimalistic industrial/military-chic packaging, then sells it to you at a stupid-high premium.

Buffalo Bullet Pencil made from a Penn State Industries kit and finished by Duke's Custom Works. Image from http://dukescustomworks.fatcow.com/hand-made-pens-and-pencils.html

Buffalo Bullet Pencil made from a Penn State Industries kit and finished by Duke’s Custom Works. Image from http://dukescustomworks.fatcow.com/hand-made-pens-and-pencils.html

Buffalo Bullet Pencil Kit component diagram. To complete the kit, you simply add a sleeve of your preferred material - turned wood, bone, antler, durable compressed kraft paper, brass sleeve made from a .303 rifle cartridge...

Buffalo Bullet Pencil Kit component diagram. To complete the kit, you simply add a sleeve of your preferred material – turned wood, bone, antler, durable compressed kraft paper, a brass sleeve made from a turn-of-the-20th-century .303 British military rifle cartridge…

Midori aren’t the only modern manufacturer attempting to revive the bullet pencil. Penn State Industries in the USA have been selling their Buffalo Bullet Pencil Kits (http://www.pennstateind.com/store/PKBFPCLCH.html). Great looking kits and some of the pencils made from them by talented and skilled artisans are stunning. Besides the awesome cherry wood example from Duke’s Custom pictured above, you can find examples put together from walnut burl, corn cob, deer antler, old ivory and even stacked leather washers just like a Ka-Bar Mk1 utility knife. My only issue with the Penn State kits is that they are too long. Ergonomically, they are probably fine, but they defeat the purpose of the bullet pencil, which was a compact writing instrument able to be carried unobtrusively and comfortably in a front slash trouser pocket so as to be close at hand at all times. I’m thinking of picking up some Penn State Kits and shortening them by about half an inch for my own creation – a pair of custom triangular micarta bullet pencils.

Back in the 1990s, the Fisher Space Pen company tried to revive the concept of the bullet-format writing instrument with its bullet space pen. They were moderately successful and the Fisher Space bullet pens remain available for sale to this day and are very well regarded by outdoor enthusiasts and “cool guy” stationery aficionados alike.

The Fisher Space Bullet Pen writes underwater.

The Fisher Space Bullet Pen writes underwater.

...so does a pencil. Therefore, a bullet pencil is at least as awesome as a Fisher Space Bullet Pen.

…so does a pencil. Therefore, a bullet pencil is at least as awesome as a Fisher Space Bullet Pen.

I prefer a pencil.

The next post in this series will look at restoring a vintage brass or aluminium commercial bullet pencil.

Once Upon a Bushfire II – The Prequel

Talking heads are saying Australia is due for a potentially-apocalyptic bushfire season this summer. Their conjecture is kind of borne out by the fact that we are only in spring and already there have been some terrible fire emergencies – not just those of the last few days, but those which devastated residential areas in far western Sydney just over a month ago on September 10, 2013.

It’s been a very early start to what is almost certain be a very scary summer. Personally I’m no stranger to natural disasters, having experienced first-hand the raw power of Mother Nature when she’s in a destructive mood – cyclones in Far North Queensland, vulcanism in the Hawaiian Islands… and bushfires right here in the bush. The fires tend to happen in approximately decade-long cycles, and we’re about five years overdue.

Back in  January 1939 the area was also long overdue for a burn. Just as occurred here, it was a perfect storm of environmental factors conspiring to create perfect conditions for catastrophe – hot and strong gusty winds, high temperatures and a high fuel load. Here’s a glance back through time at what the newspaper reporters and editors of that era had to say about the crisis they faced as Sydney was almost completely encircled by out-of-control bushfires.

SYDNEY RINGED. FOUR MORE BURNED TO DEATH.

Much Property Damage.

SYDNEY, January 15, 1939.

Four people were burned to death in New South Wales on Saturday when the worst heat wave ever experienced in the State reached its climax. Bush fires, driven by a fierce 50 miles an hour westerly wind, spread destruction in almost every important area throughout the State. From Palm Beach to Port Hacking and as far up the Blue Mountains as Mount Victoria a complete ring of bush fires surrounded Sydney, and disastrous fires also were reported from Penrose, \Vollongong. Nowra. Bathurst, Ulladulla, and Mittagong. Hundreds of houses, thousands of head of stock and poultry were destroyed and thousands of acres of grazing land, valuable timber areas. and orchards were devastated.

Fires at Castle Hill. Sylvania, Cronulla, and French’s Forest roared over fronts extending at times over many miles and had it not been for a sudden change of the weather, even greater damage would have occurred. Minor outbreaks were reported to fire brigades in almost every outlying suburb. During the day 275 calls were answered by the metropolitan fire brigade. All equipment was rushed to vital points. Firemen and volunteers, including 150 police, fought for more than eight hours to quell outbreaks.

The following deaths by fire were reported to the police-John Roach (aged 70 years), of Yalwal, near Nowra, an invalid pensioner: Percival Davies (33), of Box Hill: and a boy, “Snowy” Metcalfe, of Moree, who, with Davies, was burned in a shack. A man believed to be Harry Martin (63), a returned soldier, was burned while releasing a horse from a stable at Rogan’s Hill. Alexander Muir (77). of Cronulla, was injured. His condition is serious. In addition hundreds of persons suffered minor burns and smoke-scorched eyes.

MANY HOUSES RAZED.

Penrose, the heart of the orcharding district in the Southern Tablelands, was almost completely destroyed. The railway station and only one or two houses escaped. At Ulladulla, a few miles south of Milton on the south coast, eight houses and a timber mill and ice works were destroyed. Fire practically wiped out the settlement of Trunkey, some miles from Bathurst 15 houses being destroyed and 44 people rendered homeless. Nelligen, six miles from Bateman’s Bay, lost its two churches, a wattlebark factory, and nine homes. Fires swept almost into the town of Mittagong, about 20 houses being razed. At Castle Hill near Sydney, fire swept up gullies turning an area of vegetation dried almost to tinder into a veritable furnace. About 25 properties were destroyed, including the homes of several city business men. Serious fires also occurred in French’s Forest in the northern suburbs. All roads through the forest were closed to traffic for some hours owing to the danger of falling trees. Three houses In the area were destroyed.

At Valley Heights, on the Blue Mountains, where fire threatened the railway station, water from standing locomotives was pumped into the railway supply tank and was used to fight back the flames. Motoring authorities reported more than 400 cars were held up in Sydney and its environs because pf petrol vapourising under tile intense heat and causing cars to stop. About 30 houses and several valuable poultry runs were destroyed In a fire which advanced on a seven mile front near Sutherland, 15 miles south of Sydney. One of the houses, owned by Mrs. M. Bubb, was valued at £5000. Mrs. Bubb (aged 70) was rescued by her nephew, who dragged her to the edge of the Georges River and put her in a boat. Two homes at the back of Dee Why, two houses at Bay View, and one at Newport were destroyed when a fire broke out at Narrabeen and threatened several houses. A volunteer brigade was formed from among the Summer School of the Workers’ Educational Association, which was across the road from the fire.

MINISTER AND BISHOP JOIN FIGHTERS.

The Minister for Education (Mr. Drummond) and Bishop Noyes, of Armidale, who were to have spoken at the school, joined the volunteers, Mr. Drummond was clad in shorts and a singlet. They finally were driven back by smoke and heat and the house which they had worked to protect was destroyed. Rifle-shooters at Liverpool and members of a cricket team left their sport in the afternoon to assist at fires in many suburbs. Ten houses were reported to be burned, with all their contents, and at least 25 others were endangered when a bush-fire drove from Kellyville through Castle Hill.

In the Vural and Galston district It Is estimated that more than £50,000 damage has been done by fires. Properties destroyed include Mirrabooka and Glen View, the properties of Mr. A. H. Stuart: Monds, the property of Dr. J. Sparkes: and Hillcrest, the property of Miss E. Chaffer, all on the old Castle Hill road. A volunteer fire brigade in the district was overwhelmed with calls. Boys from De La Falle College at Castle Hill did wonderful work, operating on five or six fronts. They saved hundreds of acres of valuable orchard country from destruction.

Source: National Library of Australia’s TROVE Newspaper archive – Queensland Times, January 16 1939, page 7 – http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/118453618

New South Wales was not the only area hit by devastating fires in a 100-110 deg F (37.5 -43 deg C) heatwave that January in 1939. The southern state of Victoria suffered greatly on a day which would come to be known as “Black Saturday”.

18 PERISH IN VICTORIAN BUSHFIRES

Loss of Life and Property Exceeds 1851 Destruction

MELBOURNE, Wednesday.

TRAPPED by bushfires, 18 people perished in Victoria to-day. The death toll has now reached 20 since the fires commenced. At least 10 others are missing.

To-day was the blackest day in the tragic history of Victorian bushfire terrors, eclipsing the terrible “Black Thursday” of 1851, and the disastrous fires of 1926, 1928 and 1932.

Damage almost beyond assessment has been done. Thousands of square miles of valuable timber country have been burnt out, farm lands have been ravaged and dozens of homes destroyed. A large section of the State is now a blackened ruin and smoke from the advancing flames shrouds the entire State.

Seven people met terrible deaths when two cars in which they were making a dash for safety through the blazing bush at Narbethong were overwhelmed by flames.

Eleven men perished in a holocaust in the Rubicon forest, near Alexandria.

The Narbethong tragedy was discovered by firefighters who were searching the ruined area for people who had been reported missing. They found the burnt out cars close to gether on a track leading from the Buxton-Maryvale road to Peiglan’s mills. Nearby were five bodies, those of three men, a woman and a child. In the ruined cars were the charred bodies of two more men.

The victims were :—

Kenneth Kerslake (35), of Niasaroon, a timber worker. Eileen Kerslake (35), his wife. Ruth Kerslake, his little daughter. Frank Edwards, Mrs. Kerslake’s brother. Chris Soldaris, a Greek mill hand. Antonio Igoshus, a Greek mill hand, and Peter Igoshus, his brother. All the victims had been terribly burned and – the heat had been so terrific that some of the metal of the cars, and the glass windscreens and windows, had been melted.

The Kerslakes and Edwards were making a dash to Narbethong. On the way they picked up the Greeks who had been sheltering in a river. Not long afterwards, a wall of flame met the two cars as the fire which had raced through the Acheron district with incredible speed, over took them. Five of the victims, including the child, made a run for it, but dropped in their tracks as the scorching blast struck them. A similar fate overtook the two men who had remained in the cars. It was an irony of fate that, had the Greeks remained in the river, they would still be alive, for seven other men, employees of the same mill, were found safe after the fire had passed.

Eleven men lost then lives in the Rubicon forest, near Alexandria. They were :—

Baden Johnston (30), a millworker. Alfred Neason (35), a millworker. Hedley John West (40), of Healesville, forestry foreman. Leonard Sims, Geoffrey Wyatt, James Cain, D. Argent, A. Paine, P. Le Brun, Joseph Pherry, and P. Murdoch.

The men apparently lost their lives after an ineffectual effort to save the Rubicon and Pearce mills from destruction. As the fire advanced, they, were obliged to run for their lives. Johnston, Neason, Murdoch and West apparently tried to reach Thornton, but they died on the track through the forest. Their bodies, burnt almost beyond recognition, were found this morning. The other bodies were found not far from the mills. Two bodies were huddled in a small clearing. Smouldering coats covered their faces, but the heat had killed them.

WORKERS SHELTER IN DAM

In another part of this area 25 timberworkers saved their lives by standing in a dam for many hours, dipping their heads beneath the surface periodically to save their faces from the heat.

The fire which claimed the lives of seven Narbethong victims almost accounted for two other men from Feiglan’s mills who, shockingly burned about the lower parts of their bodies, reached Buxton to-day after a nightmare journey through the fire-swept forest.

Covered With Sawdust. They stated that, after trying with out success to save the mills, they ran to the only cleared patch, the cricket pitch, where they lay down and covered themselves with sawdust from the mills. Scorched, and suffering agony to the limit of endurance, they remained there until the fire had passed. The sawdust had been charred. and their bodies from their feet to their waists were badly burned.

The destruction of telegraph lines has made a careful check-up of the missing people impossible at present and it is possible that some of those whose whereabouts are unknown are safe.

The Powelltown valley was a sea of flame and hundreds of acres of valuable timber country have been destroyed.

Anxiety expressed yesterday about the safety of men, women and children at the Ada River mill was allayed to-day when they were brought safely to the township.

Naojee, the scene of the disastrous fires in 1926, is again menaced. The flames are creeping slowly towards the town through the heavily timbered country.

Huge trees in the Loch valley have crashed to the ground and there appears to be no hope of combating the flames at. this juncture.

Plantation Threatened. The State pine plantation is threatened with destruction and a large batch of forestry workers has been rushed to the scene. They were fighting fierce flames this afternoon. The Rubicon forest is ablaze from end

to end and terrified setters are sheltering wherever possible. Three timber mills were destroyed with great rapidity by the flames last night and a number of homes owned by timber workers disappeared.

Searchers to-day found Messrs. S. Stanfield, J. Fish and K. A. Kirk patrick, employees of the mill at Powelltown, sheltering in a deep cutting with fire all around them. People were forced to spend the night in a deep cutting near the Tynee river, while a large number of men, women and children raced for their lives before the flames at Ingrams’ hill. It was here that a fight had been waged for days without the slightest hope of quelling the fires. Displaying the greatest of pluck, eight men have remained behind at the mill battling to the end to save the homes of the workers.

From the fierceness of the flames to-night, they have no chance, but are working almost at the point of exhaustion. Only heavy rain can aid them. Seven women, 17 children and 44 men who took refuge in Ingrams’ mills last night, set out on a timber train for Erica when the position became critical to-day. They were unable to proceed far at the timber tracks on which the trains travel had been burnt through. Motor trucks from Erica took them to safety.

Residents on the fringe of the Toombullup forest completed a fire break, 25 miles long, in four days, to protect the townships of Myrrhee and Whitlands. About seven people were in the Rubicon danger area yesterday when a telephone message was sent warning them to leave immediately.

Went To Save Dog

One party of men who had been making a road to Rubicon power station ran down the track, but five men waited while one of them went to the rescue of his dog. The remaining men were not seen again. The owners reached a clearing which they had pre pared earlier in case of an emergency

Rubicon residents succeeded In getting through to Alexandra, although, for many miles, they had to drive through terrible fires. The fires at Blackwood destroyed thousands of acres of forest and five houses.

First aid men on motor cycles are going to affected areas to attend to burns suffered by fire fighters. The Governor has donated £100 to the Lord Mayor’s bush fire appeal fund.

The outskirts of Wallhalla were swept by fire this morning when a house in the southern end of the town was destroyed. The hospital and many homes were evacuated. Volunteers were called to fight the blaze, which was within half a mile of the main street. Blankets, mattresses and food were sent by motor trucks to-day to Erica. Marysville, and Warburton. At least a dozen other centres are threatened by fires.

Thousands of cattle are endangered in the Kiewa Valley, which is ablaze. Five homes near Daylesford and four homes at the Black Forest were destroyed to-day.

Source: National Library of Australia’s TROVE Newspaper archive – Northern Star, January 12 1939 Page 1 – http://trove.nla.gov.au/ndp/del/article/95474971

A burned out car lies abandoned on a dirt road after catastrophic bushfires in the Victorian ranges in January 1939

A burned out car lies abandoned on a dirt road after catastrophic bushfires in the Victorian ranges in January 1939

Of course, Victoria’s “Black Saturday” of 1939 was eclipsed by the events of almost 70 years later on February 7, 2009, a day which also deservedly bears the name “Black Saturday”.