In the Australian countryside, bushfires are a fact of life. Every summer we were always on the alert for bushfires and had our 16 ton truck loaded with a 600 gallon water tank and pump and our 1 ton truck loaded with a 200 gallon tank and pump. Early every December there would be a couple of weekends where local farmers would get together and would bring their tractors and ploughs and water trucks to each others’ properties to do some burning off and to plough fire breaks for the summer. We always had a firebreak along the row of pine trees that ran along the bitumen road in front of our house and also another one from the wheat silo to the pine plantation. We burnt off along the drive up to our house as well as the patch of land near the hayshed next to Stan’s house. There were many other areas on the farm where we would slash grass and plough fire breaks. It was a community effort, everybody moving from one property to the next until the job was complete.
Stan was a member of the Rural Fire Brigade and actively interested in the local region which operated out of Westmere, a tiny township closer to Ballarat. During the bushfire season, from 1st December to 31st March one of the locals in Westmere manned the amateur radio fire network every day and all fire-fighters within a 50 km radius had regular contact and checked in with weather/fire reports and any other pertinent information. Every morning tea, lunch time and afternoon tea Stan would listen intently to the radio activity. If there was any fire spotted, we would know about it pretty quickly and would be able to swing into action and take one or both of the trucks to the fire to help out.
Many was the time in my teens when I would be on the back of a truck on someone’s property holding a hose, helping to put out a grass fire. We were far enough away from the Grampians not to be involved in the regular bushfires that occurred in the mountains there, however, there were more than enough grass fires to keep us occupied through the summer season. Little did we know that one day our farm would be burnt out by a large grass fire.
On Saturday 12th February 1977, I was at boarding school and went to the annual Peel Street Gospel Hall picnic at the Lal-Lal Falls, a few miles from Ballarat. It was a very hot and dry day with gusty northerly winds, perfect for bushfires. For the whole day I had a sense of foreboding. I don’t know what it was and couldn’t put my finger on it as to why I was feeling strange, but I felt something was happening on the farm at Glenthompson and something told me it wasn’t good. Later in the afternoon the sky became very smoky and someone said that there had been bushfires to the north and north-east of Ballarat. Despite my concern, I waited until I rang my parents on the Sunday night, as was my usual routine, and it was then that Mum told me that our farm had been devastated by a bushfire the day before.
The fire started about lunch time on a property a few kilometres west of Glenthompson, towards Dunkeld. There was a power transformer attached to a pole which was supposed to have been replaced by the State Electricity Commission (SEC) in 1972. These transformers convert the 22,000 volts that is carried to them down to standard voltages used in homes and businesses, resulting in considerable heat generation. On this particular day, in the extreme summer heat, it practically exploded and pieces of molten metal fell down and ignited the grass around the pole. The fire, fanned by strong hot northerly winds, soon spread over a large distance and moved rapidly south towards other farms in the area. The alarm went out and a number of farmers, including my father and uncle drove to assist. It burnt thousands of hectares of property and continued to move south at high speed. At about 4pm it struck a block of bush, about 50 ha. in area which bordered 3 properties, “Brie Brie”, (pron. Bry Bry), owned by the Mann Family, “Fernleigh”, owned by the Cuming family and our property, “Bilpah Hills”. The bush went up like a mushroom bomb and there was no way that fire-fighters could stop it. It burnt like a ferocious oilfields fire, sending brown and grey plumes of smoke hundreds of feet into the air. The crackling of tinder dry trees, branches and leaves sent many kangaroos scurrying away from their homes. The fire-fighters could only stand and watch.
As is often the case in a western district summer, at about 4.30 most afternoons there is a cool change and the wind shifts abruptly to the south/south-west, bringing with it cool winds from the coast, some 50 km south of Glenthompson near Warrnambool. The fire that was ravaging the bush block started to move north-east – straight onto our property. All of a sudden, my father and uncle were in the wrong place and were still fighting the fire on another property – unaware that the fire had started to destroy our land. It raced towards Bushy Creek at the bottom of the hill, only a few hundred metres from the bush that it had so recently destroyed. Some parts of the creek were wide enough that it was unable to jump, and so it died out, but parts of the creek closest to the bush were very shallow and narrow and the fire jumped here with ease and continued its relentless march up the next hill.
Miraculously, the widest part of the creek was at the bottom of the hill on which stood the house in which my great aunt lived. An old, rambling weatherboard house, built in two sections, separated by a covered walkway and surrounded by huge, highly flammable cyprus trees, it had been the home of my great grandparents, my grandmother and all my great aunts and uncles. It was built after the great fire of 1939 had destroyed the original farmhouse, built in ca. 1890. Only my frail great aunt, Auntie Oll, lived their now. No longer capable of driving and limited in motion after a hip replacement in 1975, she was a sitting duck. My mother had detected the fact that the fire was now racing across our property and she quickly drove the 3 kms to collect Auntie Oll and bring her to our house. However, because of the width of the creek at that point, her house was never seriously threatened. The same was not to be said for our house.
As the fire raced up the hill from the creek, it cleared whole paddocks in minutes and killed thousands of sheep. It roared into the paddock which contained our brand new hayshed, full to the brim with 8000 bales of hay. A hay shed is made of metal and corrugated iron roofing. Usually the side of the shed that gets the most weather is completely covered from top to bottom by corrugated iron. It has a corrugated iron pitched roof which is supported by two or three inch-thick, steel tubing columns strengthened by steel rod forming a triangular shaped latticework welded to the columns. Half-inch steel tube cross struts are diagonally bolted between the support columns for added strength in high winds. The columns are bolted onto 50cm square concrete blocks which go about 50cm into the ground. The whole thing is finished off with metal gutters and down pipes to feed rain water away from dripping onto the hay bales, causing them to rot. Given that this hay shed was recently built by my father, who was an absolute stickler for precision in construction, I knew that it was designed to last for a very long time. The bushfire destroyed it in minutes. The melting point of steel is around 1370°C and all that was left of the hay shed were the support struts. They were, each and every one of them, bent into the most amazing contorted mess, none of them were still connected to the concrete bases and there was not a shred of corrugated iron left. It had simply vaporised.
The fire, having consumed the hayshed, continued its voracious march to the north east. The next paddock contained about 200 Aberdeen Angus cows and fortunately, all of them but one made it to the dam in time. Interestingly, Stan once told me that often sheep will walk into a fire instead of trying to get away. They seem to be mesmerized by the flames and will almost hypnotically walk to their death. Cows, fortunately, will head for the nearest patch of water they can find.
By this time the fire was very close to our house. At a distance from the house varying from 50m to 200m on three sides was a plantation consisting of pine trees, wattles, lucerne trees and boobyallas. Within that plantation, almost directly behind the house, was a polystyrene hose fed directly from our garden tank to supply water to the super spreading aeroplanes which occasionally landed on the paddock behind the plantation.
Mum had brought Auntie Oll back to our house. She left her in the car, parked on a patch of green grass at the front of the house. She then ran down to the front paddock to grab my sister’s gelding, “Blueboy”, threw a halter on him and brought him up to the house and into the front yard. Auntie Oll, sitting in the car, was to hold Blueboy’s halter with a bag over his head so he wouldn’t be frightened by the flames as mum ran around the house, trying to protect it with a garden hose.
Unbeknown to Mum, as the plantation was demolished, so too the polystyrene hose was burnt and nearly all of the water in the garden tank flowed out through this hose, rendering every other hose in the garden useless. Mum was totally beside herself.
Fortunately, a neighbour, who was not fighting the fire on the front where it started, was driving his water truck along the road and saw the flames threatening our house. He turned up our drive and came to Mum’s aid. With his help, Mum was able to protect the house. Oddly enough, at the back of the house was her extremely green vegetable patch, laden with lush produce from early summer plantings. The fire hit the vegetable patch and swung sideways, left and right and swept down either side of the house with gusto, missed the car, my great aunt and the horse, only to join up again 100 m or so in front of the house. Our house was safe. The fire did jump the bitumen road and continue on the other side, but by this time the day was starting to cool, the fire fighters had controlled it on the other fronts and returning past our property, were able to bring it under control.
We lost over 2000 hectares of good grazing land, over 4500 sheep, 2000 of which were our best breeding ewes, 1 cow, 1 hayshed, thousands of trees and tens of kilometres of fencing. All of the plantation around the house was destroyed and most of the garden that Mum had worked on for 25 years. It was a huge shock to Mum – she was devastated. Dad declared that it would set our property back about 5-10 years. All our good breeding ewes were gone, meaning that the lamb count for 1977 was going to be virtually zero. The bulk of the hay that we had made in December was destroyed, meaning a shortage of food crisis for our remaining animals during the winter months. We weren’t the worst hit in Victoria on that day, but possibly the worst in the local area. The SEC, which failed to keep up the maintenance on many of their regional installations, caused 25 of the 38 major bushfires that day. 4 people were killed in a fire that flattened Streatham, only 40 kms to the east. The Country Fire Authority and the Rural Fire Brigade resources were stretched to the limit on a day that occurs once every few years. A day of such intensity of wind, dryness and heat – all it takes is a simple flame, like a cigarette or a lighted match or an overheated electrical installation to fail and melt and suddenly you have destruction on a grand scale. The fire breaks that we had created were virtually useless against the ferocity of this fire.
We were fully insured and fully paid up when hit by the fire. We’d been with the one insurance company for years. It was my father’s understanding that we could expect to be paid market value for our breeding ewes so that we would be able to purchase more. However, the insurance company, which had just paid $90,000 in advertising sponsorship to the local branch of the Liberal/Country Party found a loophole, enabling them to squirm out of paying full market value. The local state parliamentarian and our solicitor for many years, Mr Bruce Chamberlain, asked in parliament why it was that this insurance company couldn’t pay their debts even though they could spend up big on advertising. We never received the full value that was due to us so we dropped the insurance company completely and moved to another.
Our property was used as a test case against the SEC for negligence of their equipment. We won the case, received a payout, and this became the benchmark for other farmers to sue. From that point onwards, I believe the SEC always maintained their equipment.
My sister and I came home a couple of weekends later and Mum showed us the devastation. She had taken photos of much of it and as we toured around the worst affected areas, I had a feeling that from this point forward nothing would ever be the same. I felt a sense of loss of security and comfort in my childhood – that what I had come to take for granted – my family, the farm, life in this corner of the world – was gone forever and that things would be different from now on. My father and uncle appeared tired and sombre, a slightly deeper furrowing of the brow indicating a sense of concern for the state of the property. My mother was withdrawn, distant, grieving for the losses incurred. Who would have thought that this was the catalyst for a complete upheaval of our family in the coming months.