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”.

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