Nature had a good time in the Winter and Spring of 1966 in Tasmania, especially the South East where the Capital City Hobart is wedged in and around the foothills of the Wellington Range and the stunning Derwent River. It had been a wet Winter, the Farm dams were overflowing and Hydro Electric Lakes were filled to capacity. Farmers were happy, Spring sunshine meant the Crops went crazy. A bountiful harvest was on the way. I was almost 9 years old, actually 8 and 3/4’s to be exact, but in childhood it was most important to be almost 9.
Hobart had a population of around 60,000, with maybe 20,000 more settled throughout idyllic countryside down through ‘”The Channel”, less than an hours drive away where my Grandparents had a small farm on the hill between Kettering and Oyster Cove. Rural areas out through Richmond and Colebrook were flush with crops. Spring Calves and Lambs thrived. Life was very good.
Tasmania was (and still is) the land of plenty in so many ways. Many sawmills had thriving businesses from the straight grain native hardwoods growing right out the back. Work was easy to find. My life was wonderful. A suburban existence in Springfield Estate Glenorchy, with the area backing onto the foothills bushland. Most families were employed at the local Industrial estates. Many days spent in that bushland building forts, carrying out Kid style warfare with other tribes and generally running amok with my Moonah Primary School mates who’s imagination knew no bounds. Our life experience was only limited by our brains ability to think up new, risky and exciting stuff to do.
Nene and Pops farm was a natural extension of this wonderland. So much fun! Gramophone records in the back room, feeding the farm animals, just much running around and then there was the fishing in and around Oyster Cove. Pop, my Dad and the timber dinghy were available most times. Just get in, put the oars in the rowlocks and row out in the middle of the Cove, chuck a line over the side and pull up Flathead, sometimes two at a time. We never had to fish for long as the sea harvest was plentiful. Row back the short distance to the mini jetty. Help as much as any almost 9 year old can (probably not much) to clean the fish, and then a well trodden bush track walk back up the hill to cook up fresh fish. The curled up fish tails in the hot pan were shouting how fresh they were for our delight. While writing, my mouth is salivating and the nose is reliving the cooking aroma. If I turn to the cook top I can see those Flathead sizzling!! Memory sits there parked in the archives waiting waiting for moments like these. I really wish my mouth will stop salivating though.
Unknown to myself and most south eastern Tasmanian dwellers during this late Spring to early Summer of 1967 were random fires occurring in and around the South-east. A Sawmill here and there burning off a pile of timber waste up the back of the yard as had happened for many years. Farmers burning off paddock stubble or someone clearing land with the bulldozer pushing the vegetation up into selected heaps and then setting fire to it. These actions were not unusual and no one really bothered about these random fires, not even the Fire Service which was mainly town based. Burning was a perfectly normal operation to do.
Normal Summer kicked into gear with the first of Tasmania style heatwaves kicking in (max temp 28-30 degrees C) lasting a couple of days and then back to normal temperature of mid to low 20’s for a week or so. Cold weather fronts approached from the West, pushing the winds to come from the North off the hotter Continent of mainland Australia, and then once the front went past, the temperature would cool considerably due to the south westerly winds off the cooler Southern Ocean. So this was how the normal weather pattern went. Rain was a thing of the past that early Summer in South east Tas. The farmers crops and now lush bushland undergrowth dried out. The farmers crops were harvested and the bushland undergrowth dried further.
Some concerns were raised towards the end of January 1967, about several fires that appear to have taken hold in different Districts mainly in uninhabitable bushland areas of difficult to access steep terrain. These fires were some Miles apart, so no serious alarm bells. The weather changed with a new Cold front forecast in the first week of February and those pesky winds mainly from the North picked up speed. All of a sudden isolated Fires were no longer isolated. All of a sudden that wood heap that had been smoldering for some months up the back of the Sawmill, puffed into fire and sparks flew into nearby bushland. Similarly those land clearing burn off heaps jumped back into life and some errant landowners decided this time was a good time to burn Paddock stubble. Some landowners started back burning paddocks due their concerns that some of these small bushland fires were getting close to their property. Right up to and including the 7th February these isolated acts of burning occurred.
Black Tuesday happened.
The Northerly winds from the Mainland Australia Desert picked up speed, dragging air humidity way down and fanned the smallest fire. The winds jump started many fires by casting fire embers far and wide. Nothing was spared this increasing raging inferno. It is estimated that just before this day, between 80 to 110 separate fires existed. Of these, only 20 were accidental. These 80 to 110 fires were not the work of Arsonists, they were the result of mainly hard working people thinking they were doing the right thing. Yes, some were careless with the long smoldering wood heap at the back of the Sawmill and at the land clearing, but this was not Arson.
(Forward note in time 41 years later to City of Wanneroo in Perth, West Australia – 2008 – 2014: this writer was employed as Natural Areas Coordinator and was part responsible for managing bushfire risk. It was well documented that on average there were over 350 Arson attacks each year. We did reach a peak of 500 one year. Arson attacks, not people doing work! A story for another time perhaps)
By Midday, the Temperature had broke records – 39 degrees (that is in the shade by the way) and the winds had gone Gale force. Over 110 fire fronts coalesced into one and in the space of only five (5) hours some 264,000 hectares (652,000 acres) burnt and burnt extremely hot right into Hobart City.
My day was at Moonah Primary School. Memory is quite fragmented. Sometime around Midday the School was ordered to close. My father worked at the Glass Factory behind the School and Mum was at home. These extreme conditions led to spontaneous grass fires erupting on vacant land blocks in our Industrial suburb. Dad was busy with his Factory mates dealing with the grass fires. My good mate Stuart and I set out for home as we had done many times before, a short 20 minute walk basically in a straight line up the hill to home. At this time of classroom release, this was a bit of fun getting let off school early, our childhood boy imaginations were excited, not concerned. Leaving school, the Sun had turned a Red never seen before, black stuff was falling everywhere (fire ash). It itched and burned a little, the sky was black, red and every shadowy mix of the two colours between. The wind was roaring. Heat was sucking the moisture from our faces, our arms, our shorts clothed legs with the black stuff getting thicker. We could not call it fire ash as we had never known this unknown. We walked into a greater unknown.
Two hours later (it maybe much shorter, but the mind is dim), we were at the front door to my House. Mum tried to open the front door, but didn’t really need to do much as the wind was roaring so much it tore the door handle from her hands and slammed it open. There was a massive bang and clatter at the other end of the hallway. The Manhole roof cavity cover in the ceiling at that end, some distance from the front door was picked up and blown across the roof cavity. The wind howled and howled, the black blizzard fell, the Sun and Sky were seriously angry and I cried. Mum grabbed us inside, the front door slammed shut. The howl was still there but diminished by our sanctum. Mum cried and hugged me and Stuart. We almost had enough tears to put out the fires. If only we had.
After some time, I had recovered sufficiently to look outside at what was happening. Our house was relatively safe about half a mile from the fire front that had burnt through the Range to the back fences of our Estate. My beloved secret spots and bush forts all burnt to a crisp. Everywhere appeared to be on fire. There was not much to see as the sky was black and red with so much ash. The smell of the death of Nature was on everything.
The next day our standard cool change from the South-west came in. The fires diminished relatively quickly, but the smell of Natures death lingered for a long time.
Statistics: 62 dead, 900 injured, 1293 homes gone, many more damaged, 1700 other buildings gone, 80 bridges destroyed, estimated that over 62,000 farm animals died. All telephone lines locally and to mainland Australia down. In 1967 terms, over $40 Million bucks turned to grey and black dust (roughly $300 Million now). It is listed as one of the quickest fire events on record anywhere.
It was about three days later that we were allowed to drive through the Channel district to check on the Farm. Forever in my memory is the smell, the colour of grey over everything that used to be bright and shiny and the almost completely burnt remains of the townships of Margate and Snug. Nothing but Chimneys and Fireplaces left.
For some reason a white painted weatherboard house still stood in Snug with everything burnt to a Cinder around it. My Grandparents farm was burnt to a crisp, with the the previously half full dam’s water vaporised to nothing. The dinghy was intact at the what was left of the Jetty. The dinghy had turned into a lifesaver during the worst of it, with some locals jumping into it, letting out the mooring rope as far as possible and floating in the middle of Oyster Cove. The fire burnt all the way to the Jetty and to the rope end.
Where is that lost two hours? My memory is scrubbed clean as if that fire ash scoured the very brain cells. The memory must be buried way deep behind a black door at the very bottom of my soul. I have no idea where we walked or what we did. The trauma has not left even a single memory of any conversation with Stuart at the time. Stuart’s family moved away not long after, never to be in contact again never to re-ignite the conversation of that days memory. Maybe it is best.
To this very day, the smallest smell of Fire transports me back in time to Black Tuesday 7 February 1967. I don’t fall apart, I just become very cautious and observant. For seven years in recent times, as stated earlier I was part responsible for managing fire risk at an expanding City on the Rural/Urban interface. I worked with undertaking controlled burns, developing and maintaining fire breaks and large scale weed control to reduce fire fuel loads.
The Fire Officer who was my main liaison, presented me with an SBS (Aus) video of the 1967 fires in my second last year. That day, I did the normal, went home, pulled out a cold beer, patched the Video in and prepared to watch. Within no more than 2 seconds of the Announcers voice over at the start, I was a crying and blubbering wreck.I could not and did not stop for over an hour. The Video only went for 30 minutes. This reaction had risen from behind that black door at the bottom of my soul and bitten me fair and square. It really was not until that Soul cry some 45 years after Black Tuesday, that I really cast my mind back and tried to reconstruct the days events. It was only in the now that I realised these two traumatic hours was missing. I accept that as it is. The Grief has poured down and put out the fire.
At the time of writing catastrophic fires are burning along the Eastern parts of Australia. A staggering 1 Million hectares burnt over the last few weeks. So far 7 people dead and 150 homes lost and today (Tuesday 12 November) may end up being the blackest of all the fire days so far. What is it with Tuesdays? Stay safe out there people. Fire may burn our material lives and nature, but it cannot burn our souls. Hmm, after my true confession am not so sure about that.