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Burn: the epic story of bushfire in Australia

Burn: the epic story of bushfire in Australia

Автор Paul Collins

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Burn: the epic story of bushfire in Australia

Автор Paul Collins

586 страниц
10 часов
28 сент. 2009 г.


‘Dry heat and hot, dry winds worked upon a land already dry, to suck from it the last, least drop of moisture. Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough.’ — Report of the Royal Commission into the bushfires of January 1939

With the start of every bushfire season and the first threatening hints of burning eucalypt in the air, we are reminded, no matter where we live, that bushfire is an inescapable reality in this country. In Burn Paul Collins tells the epic story of bushfire in Australia, drawing on accounts of the most devastating conflagrations in Australia’s European history — from the 1851 Black Thursday fire (which burnt out one quarter of Victoria) to the 1939 Black Friday fires (which took many lives and destroyed thousands of hectares in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, and Tasmania), the Canberra inferno of 2003, and the Black Saturday fires of February 2009.

Frightening, compelling, vivid, and provocative, Burn reveals stories of heroism, stupidity, political incompetence, and environmental vandalism. This is the grand narrative of bushfire in Australia, the most fire-prone land on Earth.

28 сент. 2009 г.

Об авторе

Paul Collins has written over 130 books and 140 short stories. He is best known for The Quentaris Chronicles, which he co-edits with Michael Pryor, The Jelindel Chronicles, The Earthborn Wars and The World of Grrym trilogy in collaboration with Danny Willis.Paul’s latest picture book is The Glasshouse, illustrated by Jo Thompson. Espionage space thriller, The Only Game in the Galaxy, the final exhilarating instalment of his YA series, The Maximus Black Files, was released in September 2013. Most recently he and Sean McMullen co-wrote the action-packed fantasy series, Warlock’s Child.Paul has been short-listed for many awards and won the Aurealis, William Atheling and the inaugural Peter McNamara awards. He has had two Notable Books in the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards.

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Burn - Paul Collins

Scribe Publications


Paul Collins, a religious commentator and historian, is the author of 13 books. He has a strong interest in environmental issues and lost a house and 425 hectares of bush during the January 2003 fires that swept through large parts of the Snowy Mountains.

In memory of

Kathleen Ann O’Hehir

Winifred Mary O’Hehir


James O’Hehir

Scribe Publications Pty Ltd

18–20 Edward St, Brunswick, Victoria, Australia 3056

Email: info@scribepub.com.au

First published by Allen & Unwin 2006

This edition published by Scribe 2009

Copyright © Paul Collins 2006

New introduction copyright © Paul Collins 2009

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage and retrieval system, without prior permission in writing from the publisher. The Australian Copyright Act 1968 (the Act) allows a maximum of one chapter or 10 per cent of this book, whichever is the greater, to be photocopied by any educational institution for its educational purposes provided that the educational institution (or body that administers it) has given a remuneration notice to Copyright Agency Limited (CAL) under the Act.

Maps by Ian Faulkner

National Library of Australia

Cataloguing-in-Publication data

Collins, Paul, 1940- .

Burn: the epic story of bushfire in Australia.

Rev. ed.


9781922072443 (e-book.)

1. Forest fires – Australia. I. Title.


Judith Wright, lines from ‘The Two Fires’ as published in A Human Pattern: Selected Poems (Sydney, 1996) reproduced by permission of ETT Imprint







1 Black Friday, 13 January 1939

2 Over a century of fires, 1788–1938

3 ‘Burn, burn, burn’, 1939


4 Black days, 1939–66

5 Ablaze, southern Tasmania, 1967

6 On the urban frontier, 1968–2002


7 ‘Stinking hot and windy’: the Snowy Mountains and Victoria, 2003

8 A perfect fire day, Canberra, 17 January 2003


9 To burn or not to burn?

10 Fire thugs

11 Fireproofing Australia?




The idea for Burn was suggested to me by Matthew Kelly, who saw a gaping hole in our historical literature. There is a published history of fire in Australia — Burning Bush (1991), by the historian of world fire Stephen Pyne — but my approach differs because my sources and narrative approach are different. I have made extensive use of newspaper sources to build up the history, and have supplemented these with a range of other printed and oral materials when available. I am very much in the debt of the Newspaper Room at the National Library of Australia in Canberra, and the knowledgeable and courteous librarians of this fine institution. I have acknowledged newspaper sources in the text.

Many people helped me, but I am particularly in the debt of two: Professor Brendan Mackey of the School of Resources, Environment and Society at the Australian National University (ANU); and Australia’s premier fire scientist, Dr A. Malcolm Gill, now a visiting fellow of the same school at the ANU. Both have helped me with many scientific questions. Also generous with their help were Dr Michael Roderick and Professor Graham Farquhar, both of the Research School of Biological Sciences at the ANU. Another person who helped enormously, by regularly discussing the issues and often pointing me in the right direction, was fellow author and environmental historian Bill Lines. Others assisted with specific issues: Dr Carolyn Rasmussen on A.E. Kelso; Professor Hugh Stretton, who spent a day talking to me about his father, Leonard Stretton; Deirdre Hawkins, historian in Kinglake; Angela Nichols of the Channel Historical and Folk Museum; Marjorie Baulman, who advised on 1930s fashion; and Drs Bill Gammage, Jeff Brownrigg and John S. Benson. Detective Sergeant Paul Barclay and Detective Constable Nicole Mulready of the New South Wales Police Force were particularly helpful in establishing the details of the story of the 2003 fires. Caren Omachen, librarian in the Victorian Department of Primary Industry, facilitated my work enormously by getting the minutes of evidence of the 1939 Stretton Royal Commission copied onto CD, thus making this precious record more widely available for research. Thanks also to Brian Walters, SC, Patricia Leon of Omeo, Frank Purcell and Dr John Coulter. Among those who have experienced bushfires, I was helped by Basil Barnard of Warburton, who survived Black Friday; Kerry Wellsmore of Paupong, who survived the 2003 fires; Eda and Tony McGloughlin and Des Fooks, who came through the Canberra fires; and Nick Goldie, who fought them around Michelago. His wife, Jenny Goldie, provided me with an extract from her father’s diary, recording Ash Wednesday 1983 at Lorne. ABC Local Radio in Canberra also helped me research the terrible Canberra fires of 2003. Louise Darmody of Sound Memories kindly provided me with her CD recalling the fire experiences of many people in the 2003 Snowy Mountains fires.

Finally, this is not an exhaustive catalogue of all fires since 1788—there is a limit to the size of any book. And, as always, all mistakes and inaccuracies in this book are entirely my own work.




All the signs were there. It was odds-on that a disaster was about to happen. The long-term context was a twelve-year drought that had effectively established a new, drier, more arid climate over south-central Victoria. Then there was enough rain in December 2008 to give the forest undergrowth, grass and scrub a chance to come to life — only to be dried out and withered in a searingly hot late-January, with three consecutive record-breaking days in Melbourne exceeding 43°C. This was the worst heatwave in 100 years, and humidity was very low. The power system could not cope, and on the main court at the Australian Tennis Open the temperature reached 50°C. Less than a millimetre of rain fell in Melbourne in January.

In the first week of February, the weather pattern was even more ominous: a ‘blocking’ or stationary high-pressure system in the Tasman Sea and a monsoonal trough off the north-western coast of Australia ‘provided the conditions for hot, dry air of tropical origin to be directed over southern parts of the continent. On Saturday 7 February 2009 strong northerly winds, ahead of a cooler south-westerly change, brought this hot air to southern Victoria.’ ¹ The Weather Bureau’s Dr Mark Williams later told the 2009 royal commission that ‘From Wednesday onwards … it became clear that we really were heading for an extreme weather day on Saturday … I can’t remember an occasion where the forecasters have been so strong in calling a forecast that far out.’ ² Everything pointed to dangerous bushfires.

In the days immediately prior to ‘Black Saturday’, it was clear to Victoria’s Country Fire Authority (CFA) that the predicted FFDI (Alan McArthur’s Forest Fire Danger Index) levels would be ‘off the scale’. Counsel assisting the royal commission, Jack Rush, QC, told the commissioners that the maximum on the FFDI is 100, and that over 50 is considered ‘extreme’. On 7 February it reached ‘previously unrecorded levels ranging from 120 to 180’. ³ The problem the CFA had was how to communicate this level of danger to the public. They used the designation ‘high extreme’. There were already bushfires burning a week before 7 February in central-south Gippsland around Boolarra and Yinnar, and the temperature in Melbourne reached 43.7°C. Then, on 6 February, a fire broke out in the Bunyip State Forest in the hills to the east of Gembrook, 50 kilometres south-east of the city. Moving in a south-easterly direction with 40-metre-high flames, it broke its overnight containment lines early on 7 February. It was soon threatening the outskirts of Bunyip, Labatouche, Pakenham and Drouin.

On Black Saturday itself, temperatures went through the roof and humidity was very low. Melbourne recorded its hottest day on record—46.4°C at 3.00 pm. ⁴ At Avalon Airport between Melbourne and Geelong it was 47.9°C, and at Hopetoun in Victoria’s Mallee the temperature was 48.8°C, the highest ever recorded in Victoria. There were wind gusts of between 90 and 115 km/h at various places in western and south-central Victoria. All that was now needed was ignition. This came in the form of a snapped or fallen power line near Kilmore East, 55 kilometres north of Melbourne, at 11.49 am. Nearby vegetation caught fire. This was the beginning of the largest and most destructive of the Black Saturday conflagrations, the Kilmore East fire.

Kilmore East is a mixed cleared and tree-covered area a couple of kilometres west of the Hume Freeway. There are a number of pine (Pinus radiata) forests in the area, and in this volatile landscape, the fire gathered intensity. Moving at about 1.5 km/h, it reached the Hume Freeway, burnt along it for some 14 kilometres, and then at about 2.00 pm penetrated the mixed forested and cleared areas to the east. The CFA felt there was a ‘slim chance’ that the fire could be suppressed in the more open country around the Hume Freeway, but that once it moved eastwards it would be very difficult to control. ⁵ By about 2.30 pm it was 640 hectares in extent and, driven by the wind, it was gathering velocity. Close to the freeway the towns of Wandong, Heathcote Junction and Clonbinane were impacted. An hour later, the fire was burning east-south-east through the forested hills around Mount Disappointment to the north of Whittlesea. By now it was travelling at about 8 km/h and was spotting some 10–15 kilometres ahead of itself.

It was now uncontrollable, and its behaviour was becoming increasingly unpredictable as the southern front hit the small towns of Humevale, Kinglake West, Arthurs Creek, Saint Andrews and Strathewen. Russell Rees, head of the CFA, said that ‘heavy spotting, [and] landing of multiple fires’ was occurring. He told the royal commission that it was like ‘a cluster bomb impact where multiple fires are starting [with] confluence zones in and around that area.’ Rees argued that there were now effectively two fires, one on Mount Disappointment and ‘another large collection of fires that started to come together … in that bowl area of Strathewen, Arthurs Creek [and] … towards Saint Andrews.’ ⁶ By 5.00 pm it was spotting as far ahead as Yarra Glen and Healesville. The little town of Strathewen was caught right in the middle of this chaotic maelstrom. Situated below the Kinglake escarpment with only one access road, the population of the Strathewen area was about 200. With no warning about the turbulent fire that surrounded them, many were trapped and 27 people died. In nearby Saint Andrews, another twelve people died.

Just as the Kilmore East fire was crossing the Hume Freeway, a firebug was at work in south-central Gippsland, about 15 kilometres from the earlier fires around Boolarra. A fire began on a road near a timber plantation 2 kilometres from the town of Churchill and about 10 kilometres south of Morwell. Once alight, the fire burned south into the cleared hills of central Gippsland, with spot-fires occurring at Yarram, 35 kilometres away.

Meanwhile, at round 2.45 pm, away to the north-east of Melbourne, another deliberately lit fire began at the old Murrindindi mill—near the Murrindindi Scenic Reserve in the hills south of Yea, on the western edge of the Toolangi-Black Range State Forest. This was about 35 kilometres north-east of the Kilmore East fire. By 3.00 pm the Murrindindi fire had reached the main north–south road in the area, the Melba Highway. It gathered velocity, moving in a south-south-easterly direction. ⁷ By 4.30 pm it had shifted around to the south-east and had begun to burn through the forest across the Black Range. Residents on the other side of the range, in the small towns of Narbethong and Buxton on the Maroondah Highway north of Healesville, were told to activate their fire plans. By 4.48 pm the fire was spotting into Narbethong.

By mid-afternoon the Kilmore East fire-front was impacting the western and southern edges of the 11,500-hectare Kinglake National Park. Essentially, the park, which is on a low range of forested hills 50 kilometres north of Melbourne, is made up of three sections: two are on the southern slopes of the Great Dividing Range; and the northern one is on a plateau north-east of the town of Kinglake (population 1100), to the west of the Melba Highway. The plateau, whose elevation varies from 450 to 550 metres, drops away steeply on the southern side. A road runs along the top of the plateau from the junction with the Melba Highway through Kinglake to Kinglake West, and another road runs down the steep escarpment from Kinglake through the park to Saint Andrews and the outer Melbourne suburbs. These roads became death traps that afternoon.

The most destructive element in all these fires came late in the early evening, with a shift in wind direction. At about 5.00 pm the wind swung around from the north-west to the south-west. The authorities were clearly forewarned because this cooler front had been moving across the southern part of the state at 30–40 km/h for the whole afternoon. This is a similar weather pattern to Ash Wednesday in 1983. Fire scientist Dr Kevin Tolhurst described for the royal commission the effects of this change. He told them this was ‘the worst situation you can have’, essentially because ‘where originally the fire had been driven … in a south-easterly direction, and we have a relatively long, narrow fire, when we get the south-westerly 90 degree shift in the wind … it drives the fire in a north-easterly direction [and] we have a whole new area of fire that gets blown sideways.’ In other words, the fire turns sideways and a head that might be 5–8 kilometres wide can become 20–40 kilometres wide. ⁸

The change impacted the Kilmore East fire soon after 6.00 pm. Meteorologist Mark Williams described for the royal commission what happened: ‘The front intensifies and it strengthens the northerlies ahead of the front and then the southerlies that come in behind can be very gusty. But on the front itself it can be very turbulent and a very dangerous area for any sort of fire activity.’ ⁹ This concurs with the description given by firefighter Mike Edmonds, who was stuck in the middle of it. ‘[We were] caught out on top of a ridge when the change came through. While we had warning, we weren’t prepared for its intensity. Firefighters in full battle gear were literally blown over. The only thing to do was to take shelter behind the truck as a hail of superheated stones, dust and burning bits and pieces were hurled against us … Our crew leader had the protective lens of his goggles blown out by the hellish wind … The simple act of breathing became torture because of the temperature of the wind blast, which picked up speed and heat as it raced over paddocks and forests’ (Herald-Sun, 9/2/09). The fire was so intense that in some places the humus in the soil was burning.

Driven by the south-westerly, the fires turned around to the north-east. By 5.00 pm the fire started to come ‘up the mountain’ toward Kinglake. Forty minutes later, the town was hit by fires coming from two directions: the first from the north-west; and then by the second fire coming up the escarpment, driven by the south-westerly change. The fires came through with full force between 6.00 and 7.00 pm. Sharon McCulloch, who, with her partner Craig Lovick, owned the National Park Hotel in the centre of the town, gave detailed evidence to the royal commission. ¹⁰ In fact, this very hotel building had been the scene of one of the hearings of the Stretton royal commission following the ‘Black Friday’ fires of 1939. McCulloch reported that by 6.00 pm the hotel was under ember attack, and that very quickly buildings and residences in Kinglake began to catch fire. A couple of hundred people sheltered in the CFA shed next to the hotel. McCulloch says that ‘It was very, very hot. The noise for me, I don’t remember a lot about the noise. I heard it roaring and then once I heard it I don’t really remember it again. Craig—that’s all he can remember, was the noise. He remembers the noise being extremely loud. It was hard to walk. It was windy, very hot … I could hardly see 2 metres in front of me … There was no oxygen to breathe.’ ¹¹ That night Kinglake was virtually wiped out. The hotel was one of the few buildings left standing. Thirty-eight people died.

Steels Creek, like Kinglake, sits at the top of the escarpment, just east of the Kinglake National Park. Ten people died here as fires burnt rapidly up the escarpment gullies. On the northern edges of the fires, the small towns of Flowerdale, Strath Creek and Hazeldene were heavily impacted and thirteen people died in this area. Some time later that night, the Murrindindi fire joined the Kilmore fire—probably somewhere east of the Melba Highway, which runs north from Yarra Glen to Yea. Toolangi, on the southern flank of the fire, lost ten houses and two people died, but the main part of the town was spared, with locals fighting off ember attacks for two days after Black Saturday. Altogether, 120 people died in the Kinglake Ranges.

Until just before 5.00 pm on Black Saturday, the Murrindindi blaze was not seen by fire officials as posing a threat to towns, but by then the realization was dawning that this was a major risk for communities along the Maroondah Highway from Healesville to Alexandra. Watching the fire from the Mount Gordon fire tower, Department of Sustainability and Environment (DSE) spotter Andrew Willans was becoming increasingly concerned. He had been watching smoke from the fire almost from its beginning, just over 20 kilometres away. By 3.30 pm he was profoundly concerned and tried to warn the Marysville CFA. He told the royal commission, ‘Marysville was a small town, it was in a hollow. They couldn’t see this; I could. I was quite determined to let them know that this was like nothing else they had ever seen before.’ ¹² After many efforts, he eventually got through to a CFA member at home. He advised her to get the alarm sounded, and to evacuate people from Marysville as quickly as possible. ‘The spotting had intensified’, he told the royal commission, ‘and the spot-overs seemed to be drawn back up the hill into the main fire.’ ¹³ He saw one fire begin 14 kilometres ahead of the main blaze. But it was the smoke cloud mass that most concerned him: ‘it was’, he says, ‘enormous … massive … and it was alive. This thing was just full of ember, ash, burning materials. This thing was absolutely alive.’ ¹⁴ He left the tower, which was destroyed, at 4.40 pm—when the temperature was 44°C, with wind gusts up to 80 km/h. He spent the next six hours successfully defending his own home at Granton, a couple of kilometres from Marysville.

At 5.34 pm, the DSE announced that Marysville and Buxton could ‘expect to come under direct attack from this fire.’ By now the fire was completely out of control. Around 6.20 pm, two CFA strike teams with twelve fire trucks and tankers tried to make a stand at Kings Road on the southern and western outskirts of Marysville, but were quickly forced to retreat to the oval. Locals had begun arriving there from about 6.00 pm. Around 6.45, an evacuation convoy of cars left the town for Alexandra, just as the front came through with a 60 km/h wind. It turned the fire around towards the north-east. At about 7.00 pm, the front hit Marysville. The DSE’s Tony Lovack said that ‘Fire behaviour is quite extreme, it’s travelling in the forest area roughly about 8 km/h but its spotting up to 5 kilometres, so you’ve got this leap-frogging effect right the way down the [Acheron] Valley.’ ¹⁵ In the end, hardly any buildings were left standing in Marysville and 34 people lost their lives.

When the wind change came through between 6.00 and 6.30 pm, the Churchill fire in central Gippsland had burnt about 15 kilometres south-east from Churchill to Balook, north of the Tarra-Bulga National Park. Two large spot-fires broke out: one near Won Wron and the other just north of Devon North, to the north of Yarram. There were many smaller spot-fires. But the change in wind direction turned the fire around towards the north-east, and it entered its most destructive phase as it burnt through Callignee, Callignee North and Koomalla, and on to the outskirts of Traralgon. Eleven people died in this 90,000-hectare fire.

The Bunyip fire continued to burn south as far as the Princes Freeway at Longwarry North, and to just north of Drouin. Eventually, a 24,500-hectare area was burnt, most of it in the Bunyip State forest, but there were no fatalities. On Black Saturday, Victoria also experienced a number of other fires: the Murmungee fires to the north and east of Myrtleford, and to the east of Beechworth. This area had seen many previous bushfires. A husband and wife were caught in what was described as ‘a deadly twister fire’, and were killed as they tried to protect their house near Mudgegonga. The Bendigo suburb of Long Gully, 2 kilometres from the city centre, was hit by the deliberately lit and fast-moving Maiden Gully fire, which killed two people and destroyed almost 50 houses. There were other smaller fires around Horsham, Coleraine, Redesdale and Colac. Fires continued to threaten Victoria for the following fortnight, but by 11 February the worst was over.

Black Saturday was by far the most deadly series of bushfires ever to hit Australia and the worst natural disaster in the nation’s history, with 173 people killed. Forty-seven people had died in Victoria and 25 in South Australia on Ash Wednesday (16 February 1983). Seventy-one Victorians died on Black Friday (13 January 1939). However, the area impacted by Black Saturday was quite small compared to Black Friday and Ash Wednesday: the largest fire, the Kilmore East–Murrindindi fire, measured 106 kilometres from west to east at its widest, and 45 kilometres from north to south. The Churchill, Murmungee and Bunyip fires were smaller. In contrast, the Black Friday fires were much more extensive, reaching to the NSW border and beyond. All of the areas burnt in 2009 had been impacted many times before. The reasons are obvious. There is extensive human settlement, and the forests have been logged and broken up by clearing so that they have lost the natural self-protection that intact forests, especially cool temperate rainforests, have — and, of course, they are naturally prone to fire, especially in drought conditions. But what the Black Saturday fires lacked in extent, they made up for in speed and intensity. It was this that trapped many people.

Historically, people’s responses to the great fires of European Australia follow a predictable pattern. The firefighters and volunteers are extolled as heroes and idealised as selfless. For instance, on an ABC News blog on 10 February a typical comment from Western Australia said: ‘I just want to say to all the volunteers over there, whether you’re from the CFA or Red Cross … you guys ROCK! … Like so many others I have been overwhelmed by the selfless generosity and dedication you have shown … Your efforts are testament to the Australian spirit.’ There is also extraordinary and immediate public generosity. We want to help our fellow citizens in their loss and pain. This was certainly borne out in 2009: by 11 June the donations received by the Red Cross totalled $369 million. Politicians are also quick to exercise their leadership credentials. There was something almost ‘ministerial’ and ‘priestly’ about the way Prime Minister Kevin Rudd interacted with victims.

Another element in the post-fire responses that became particularly prominent in 2009 was a kind of civil-religious response. Many outdoor services were held, reaching their culmination in an ecumenical memorial service held in Melbourne on 22 February for bushfire victims. As Sydney Anglican Bishop Robert Forsyth later commented, ‘It’s universal when human beings are suffering deep dislocation and grief to seek some context and resolution in something bigger than themselves to make sense of it and support them. This is what the … [bushfire] service tried to do.’ However, he added that while there were perfunctory references to God, ‘the most common big context of transcendent meaning was Australia. Time and time again it was the appeal to Australians, Australian community, Australian values.’ ¹⁶ A new kind of all-embracing civil religion seems to be emerging, through which grieving people attempt to express their feelings.

But even before the fires were out, the blame game began. It happens after every major bushfire. Usually a government agency of some sort, or a specific group of people, is blamed for what it did or didn’t do. The psychology of blame is obviously operative here. Much of the attack is an expression of the need to find scapegoats and deal with a sense of grief and loss. After the 1939 Black Friday fires, the Forestry Commission and the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works were accused of not being proactive in clearing forest litter and scrub. After the most extensive and long-lasting series of fires in the European history of Australia in 2002–3, there were many attacks on those considered responsible for not carrying out hazard-reduction burning. This became a touchstone that focused a range of other corrosive issues simmering away in rural communities.

The response to Black Saturday was typical. Never one for subtlety or nuance, Sydney Morning Herald columnist Miranda Devine told her readers that ‘it wasn’t climate change that killed as many as 300 people [sic] … It wasn’t arsonists … It was the power of green ideology over government to oppose attempts to reduce fuel hazards before a megafire erupts … If politicians are intent on whipping up a lynch mob to divert attention from their own culpability, it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lampposts, but greenies’ (12/2/09). The same theme, albeit in less extreme rhetoric, was taken up by Germaine Greer from her London bolthole. She described government environmental authorities as ‘arsonists for failing to carry out regular burn-offs, which she says could have prevented the deadly Victorian bushfires’ (Australian, 15/2/09). Another article along the same lines in the Australian (11/2/09) pitted ‘Australia’s leading bushfire experts’ — Ron Incoll, and David Packham of Monash University — against Nillumbik Shire Council (which covers an area north of the city up to the Kinglake National Park), in which ‘green groups’ are influential. Again, the issue was hazard-reduction burning, and the shire’s prohibition against clearing of native vegetation. This is also reflected in a number of submissions to the 2009 royal commission.

While firefighters might be extolled, organizations like the CFA and the DSE often come in for much of the blame. Sometimes this is justified. At the royal commission, the CFA came in for a lot of criticism. There have been claims that the warnings were inadequate, that the CFA was ‘in a mess’ on Black Saturday, that there were management deadlocks and that the ABC’s coverage was a form of ‘infotainment’. But while the royal commission unearthed some serious problems, the caveat of counsel assisting, Jack Rush, QC, needs to be remembered: this was a fire of ‘phenomenal’ speed, and in 2009 we entered a new era of bushfires. ¹⁷

There is a sense in which bushfires are a godsend for the media. They provide dramatic viewing, and opportunities for ‘live reports’ from the scene of tragic situations. The media also love heart-warming stories of generosity and heroism in the face of danger. Much of this reporting serves a good purpose and shows people’s generosity and courage. It is chance for the unmediated voices of ordinary people to get to air. But sometimes, due to pressure or carelessness, the media ran incomplete, inaccurate and tendentious stories. This becomes especially bad when linked to the tendency to blame some type of authority—such as in the case of ‘heroic residents’ defying council regulations concerning clearance or burning of native vegetation. ¹⁸

What was often ignored in the media commentary was that Black Saturday was no ordinary bushfire. While its trajectory roughly followed that of Black Friday 1939, its velocity and intensity was something entirely new. Fire-behaviour researcher Kevin Tolhurst told the royal commission that the 2009 fires burned so intensely that they produced enough energy to power Victoria for a year. He compared the fires to 1500 Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs. ¹⁹ No doubt a few previous bush fires would have reached similar intensities. It also needs to be remembered that the energy is dissipated over a very wide area. Tolhurst said that ‘the best fire-fighting equipment could be used in direct attacks only on fires that burned up to 4000 kilowatts a metre [and] … that some fires that day had burned at an intensity of 150,000 kilowatts’ (Age, 22/5/09). Later, the commission was told that the fire that swept across the Kinglake ranges was ‘impossible to suppress’, especially after the late afternoon change came through. ²⁰ Clearly, no amount of hazard-reduction burning would have made much difference, although some have argued that it would have reduced the fire’s intensity.

All of this indicates that in 2009 we entered a new era of bushfire behaviour, largely shaped by global warming. In a submission to the royal commission, Professor Neville Nicholls of Monash University pointed out that climate change is already happening. ‘The gradual warming of Australian mean maximum temperature of about 0.75°C most likely … contributed to the extreme heat observed on 7 February … It seems unlikely that such new records, so far outside prior experience, would have occurred in the absence of gradual warming since about 1970.’ ²¹ Human-induced global warming is the key factor here. It is also responsible, as Nichols says, for ‘the chronic Victorian rainfall decline over the past decade’. The Melbourne-area rainfall average between 1997 and 2008 is 10 per cent lower than the previous record-low 12-year rainfall total. This drought has dried out the forests of south-eastern Australia ‘especially when the warming of the last 40 years is taken into account—droughts are now hotter than they were in the past.’ In a cautious conclusion, Nicholls says that climate change ‘exacerbated the bushfire situation of 7 February, even though it did not cause the bushfires’.

Environmental scientist Professor Peter A. Gell of Ballarat University pointed out in a submission to the royal commission that ‘South-east Australia is a global climate hot-spot’, that ‘extended drought creates the highest risk of catastrophic wildfire’, and that ‘very extreme and catastrophic conditions will occur more frequently.’ Scientist Tim Flannery is blunt in his assessment: ‘Climate modelling suggests that the decline of southern Australia’s winter rainfall is caused by a build-up of greenhouse gas, much of it from coal burning. Victoria has the most polluting coal power plant on earth, and another plant was threatened by the fire’ (Sydney Morning Herald, 12/2/09). The fires are doubly destructive because they release large amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Recent research has shown that trees, and particularly old-growth forests, are enormous carbon sinks. ²² As Professor Brendan Mackey of the ANU told the Canberra Times, old trees ‘have grown wood that’s heavy and dense. That’s important because the amount of carbon stored is related to the volume and density. Unlike tropical forests where things tend to decay quite rapidly, these wet temperate forests have lots of plant growth and much slower rates of decay’. The result is that ‘the amount of carbon that builds up in these complex forests can be very large’. (16/6/09)

While we may have entered a new era of bushfires with global warming, that doesn’t mean we can learn nothing from the past. So it is to the past that we will now turn, with what is seen by many as the other great fire of Australian history—Black Friday, 1939.





No one in Noojee knew exactly where the fire came from originally. The rumour was—and, as the police later established, it proved to be partly correct—that it had begun almost a fortnight before, somewhere near Kinglake East, and that it had been lit by a farmer who thought he could do some burning off in the worst fire weather ever experienced in the European history of south-eastern Australia.

For the one hundred or so people still left in Noojee on ‘Black Friday’, 13 January 1939, all that was irrelevant now. ¹ What mattered was that the tall mountain ash forests that surrounded the town were fiercely ablaze. Everywhere people looked, to the south-east, east, north, and north-west, there was a massive fire burning. Even though it was just after midday, the sky was so black that people needed lights and torches to be able to see. Flames leapt over 35 metres into the air above the tree-line and the wind direction changed constantly as the fire created its own wind patterns. The noise was deafening and smoke blinded both people and animals and choked them as they tried to breathe. The heat was so intense it blistered any exposed skin. There was only one narrow escape corridor, which fortunately paralleled the railway line and dirt road, both of which ran due south out of the valley in which Noojee nestled, and up over steep hills towards Neerim Junction, 8 kilometres away, in cleared and open dairy country.

Early that Friday afternoon, for the second time in its short history Noojee was totally destroyed by fire. It all happened very suddenly. Between 11.00 am and midday tremendous fires, whipped up by an almost hurricane-force wind, descended on the town from the north, west and east. Just before one o’clock the local policeman requisitioned several cars to take as many of the women and children, most of whom were vomiting from heat and nervous excitement, through the still unburned forest to the south out to safety at Neerim Junction.

Besides the policeman, several other people remained on duty. Among them was the assistant postmistress, Mrs Gladys Sanderson. She continued to work in the wooden post office, keeping contact with the wider world by phone and telegraph until just after 2.00 pm when the building itself caught fire. Most phone and telegraph lines had already burned down, but those connecting the town with Warragul were still open. Mrs Sanderson was the custodian of the only fireproof safe in Noojee and people in panic had mobbed her, begging her to put their valuables in it. Her final telegram to her superior, the Warragul postmaster, testified to her calm and stoic self-possession: ‘I am about to close down now as the flames are licking the building. I have locked valuables in the safe and am going to the river. If the worst comes to the worst, you will find the keys of the office and safe strapped to my wrist.’ She then ran the short 20-metre distance to the Latrobe River, which flowed besides Noojee’s main street, and joined other remaining residents of the town sheltering in the relatively shallow water.

As the fire surrounded the town there was still a train standing at the platform of Noojee station. By 1.30 pm it had built up sufficient steam to depart, although it was not due to leave until 3.10. It consisted of a dirty grey-black steam engine, six dark-red and battered four-wheeled open freight wagons, four of them filled with logs and other goods, and a six-wheeled, freshly painted bright-red guard’s van. The guard, Arthur Armstead, was becoming increasingly concerned and afraid. The 21 women and children who were left behind after the requisitioned cars departed went straight to the station, begging Armstead to get them out of Noojee by train as quickly as possible. The guard got them to climb aboard the two empty freight wagons.

The situation was getting worse by the minute with increasing heat, smoke and darkness. Armstead decided to call the stationmaster at Warragul to ask what he should do and in turn the Warragul stationmaster phoned Victorian Railways headquarters at Spencer Street in Melbourne for instructions.

Just before 2.00 pm the reply came from Spencer Street. ‘Get the train out of Noojee immediately and take it to Warragul’, Armstead was told, to save the rolling stock. He responded immediately. Reassuring as best he could the women and children sheltering in the last two wagons, Armstead waved his green flag and blew his guard’s whistle and when the train began to move, jumped toward the running board and open swing-door of the guard’s van. The train slowly gathered speed, pulling out of the station.

It was a nightmare journey. The single track ran up a long, gradual incline out of Noojee through thick forest which was by then beginning to catch fire. John Woolstonecraft, the Noojee postmaster, later complained that the Victorian Railways had been repeatedly asked by the Progress Association to cut the bush back from the track, but the railways had cited lack of funds and nothing was done. ² The driver pushed the 120-ton N-class locomotive uphill as hard and as fast as he could, but both he and Armstead knew they had to get to ‘bridge number seven’, a massive wooden structure standing on nineteen trestles over a deep, narrow gully just under two kilometres out of Noojee, before the fire did—or at least before the bridge’s structure was weakened so badly that it could not carry the weight of the locomotive and the cargo-laden freight trucks. ³ They also knew that the train had to cross six other wooden bridges on the way to Neerim Junction.

By now the ground itself seemed to be alight and the wooden sleepers were catching fire. Burning branches and leaves were falling all around the train or being blown into the freight trucks. ‘Several times the blaze raged furiously around the trucks, only a few yards behind us’, Armstead was to recall later. ‘We were afraid the train would catch fire.’ ⁴ The red guard’s van in which he was riding was a wooden construction built on an iron frame attached to two-wheel bogies, and it easily could have caught fire.

When they got to the ‘cobweb ladder’, as the 102-metre-long and 21-metre-high number seven bridge was called, the driver stopped the train. He and Armstead ran ahead to try to check the state of the structure by leaning over the edge and peering through the dark and choking smoke to see what was happening down at the base of the wooden piles. It seemed safe enough, although there was burning vegetation down at the bottom of the bridge. Gingerly, the driver eased the train across.

They made it, but less than a kilometre up the track they stopped again to check another smaller bridge. It was a terrifying process and they were not safe until they finally broke out into the cleared, open country just to the north of Neerim Junction. Several of the women and children had suffered burns to their faces and almost all were suffering from smoke inhalation and some from smoke blindness. Less than fifteen minutes after their crossing the trestle bridge caught fire and was completely destroyed. One of the classic photographs of the Black Friday fires is of the still-smouldering remnants of the bridge and pylons, with the contorted steel track and burning sleepers hanging across the narrow valley, suspended 20 metres in the air.

The train and its passengers might have escaped, but the town didn’t. Once the flames got a grip, Noojee was destroyed in just twenty minutes. The station was burned to the ground and the four freight trucks left standing on a siding were completely consumed. Only the Noojee Hotel, the butcher’s shop and a house remained. This was even worse than the disastrous ‘Black Sunday’ forest fires of 14 February 1926 when most of the town had been destroyed, and 31 people were burned to death in nearby Warburton.

In 1939 there were about 60 people left in town when the fire arrived and most of these, mainly women, children and exhausted firefighters, took final refuge in the Latrobe River. They were there for four hours with the fire burning on the banks on both sides. The river was not particularly deep. It would have afforded some protection from the flames, but not from the heat and the smoke. There they stood huddled together near a water-wheel, covered with wet blankets. The Age reported the following day that the group included ‘a mother with her nine months old baby, and Mrs Padgett, who is 92 years of age, who had been discovered in a state of collapse in her home. Sewing machines, wireless sets, bedding and other miscellaneous household goods, which had been hurriedly collected from their homes by the fleeing townsfolk, were thrown into the river, and three motor cycles and a motor car were driven into the water for safety.’ The Herald reported that Mrs Padgett and her daughter were in a car to be driven to Warragul but ‘before they could be driven away . . . fallen electrical wires blocked the exit. [So the driver] . . . drove the car with the passengers straight into the river.’ After the fire, three Noojee men were taken to Warragul Hospital with severe burns and were listed as ‘critical’, but all survived. Mrs Sanderson emerged unscathed from the river and was back on duty as soon as phone and telegraph lines were restored. She was awarded the Order of the British Empire for devotion to duty.

After the fires died down later that night another heroine emerged to rival Mrs Sanderson. Mrs Chamberlain was a survivor of the 1926 fires and was the licensee of the Noojee Hotel. She turned it into a refugee centre. The hotel was inundated with people suffering from burnt hands, scorched faces, partial or total smoke blindness, and others vomiting from nervous excitement. The Argus wrote glowingly about her generosity:

Suffering from blisters on the face and with one eye bandaged [she] has been on her feet for sixty hours giving assistance to all who have requested it. She has provided scores of refugees and volunteers with excellent meals, and has resolutely refused to accept payment for one of them. Nursing babies so that their mothers could rest and comforting sufferers from smoke blindness, she has won the admiration of the district. (16/1/39)

While no one in Noojee was killed, a terrible tragedy occurred 24 kilometres away near the village of Tanjil Bren where Alfred ‘Ben’ Saxton and his brothers, Eric and John Godfrey Saxton, ran a successful timber mill in the midst of mountain ash country. The fire descended on the Saxton mill at about the same time as it hit Noojee. At the mill site there were three dugouts, covered trenches cut into the earth that were usually from 4 to 7 metres long and between 2 and 4 metres wide, and deep enough for people to stand in, covered by about half a metre of earth dumped on top of a cast-iron or occasionally cement roof built over a timber frame. Dugouts could also be cut into the sides of hills or embankments and were protected from the flames and radiant heat by waterlogged blankets or hessian strips at the entrances or occasionally by steel doors, although any exposed timber was still in danger of catching fire in the intense heat. Containers of water were stored in dugouts to cool those sheltering inside and to keep the protective fabric wet. Sometimes containers of oxygen were left to assist breathing.

Just after 2.00 pm on Black Friday it was almost pitch dark and of the 39 people at Saxton’s mill, 30 crammed into an unusually big dugout (15 metres long, 7.25 metres wide and 1.8 metres high) and six into a smaller one (7.6 metres long, 3 metres wide and 1.8 metres high). Over near the house, Ben, his wife and nineteen-year-old Mick Gorey, who had gone over to help Mrs Saxton clear valuables out of the house, clambered into another tiny dugout. ⁵ The big dugout was well stocked with food and water. By any standards it was safe. The same could not be said for the other two.

The main fire front hit the mill just before three o’clock. ‘Impelled by a roaring north-west wind flames leaped across the [mill] clearing. Big lumps of wood flaming against a sky as dark as night ignited everything they touched’, an Age reporter wrote on 16 January 1939. ‘Four mill horses and a pony, which were free, dashed around the clearing screaming with pain, but after enduring the heat for half an hour they went mad and galloped off into the timber where their charred remains were found later.’ On the mill site itself some 350,000 super-feet of timber burst into flame. This generated extraordinary heat—hot enough to melt iron. Meanwhile in the big dugout wet blankets were held over the entrance, but often they fell in charred pieces even before the water on them was dry. The heat was so intense that men could only hold the blankets for two minutes before they

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