Tuesday 7th February 2017 – Today marks 50 years since fires ravaged southern Tasmania, for the first time entering suburbia and coming within two kilometres of the Hobart Post Office. Like Canberra in 2003, people still had the idea that bush fires only happened in the bush. Indeed, other fires like the Black Friday fires of 1939, whilst destroying 5 townships, was confined to the alpine and bushland areas of the mountains.
The winter and spring of 1966 had been wet, meaning that there was an unusual amount of plant growth. Come November however, Tasmania was treated to the hottest and driest summer since 1885. February 1967 arrived, with high temperatures, low humidity and very strong winds from the north west. One hundred separate fires were burning by the 7th February, eighty eight of which – it was determined – were started deliberately.
“…the report prepared by the Solicitor-General of the day, DM Chambers, and the Master of the Supreme Court said that many of these fires were caused by escapes from incinerators, breakaways from rubbish dumps, arson or landowners burning off without permission from a fire warden or in defiance of a permit being refused.” 1
It took just 5 hours for the fire to go through 652,360 acres; 1,293 homes; more than 1,700 other buildings, 80 bridges, 4,800 sections of power lines, 1,500 motor vehicles, at least 62,000 farm animals and more than 100 other structures. The total damage bill was $40 million in 1967 values.
In 2007, on the 40th anniversary, Christine Milne addressed parliament: “It was a trauma for Tasmania. It is a small community and everybody knew someone who was in some way affected.”
That includes my family. My grandparents and my father were actively involved in fighting fires, trying to survive and losing material possessions.
As a teen I was inspired by this tale of our history to write the story. I’m not sure what caught my interest back then, but I know that when Dad wrote his memories of that day for the Channel Heritage Centre a couple of years ago, what caught me was the realisation of what a close thing it was. Dad coming home and finding the house full of smoke, not knowing where his mother was – I can just imagine the anxiety and dread. I can only imagine what Grandma, Dad and one of their neighbours sheltering on the edge of the dam, went through. Everything but the orchard burning. The smoke would have hung over them, the roar of the fire and the massive explosion of the newly filled fuel drums exploding would have filled their ears.
The 62 deaths represent the greatest number to perish as a result of a one-day natural disaster in Australian history. But as evidenced by the Australian people’s response in other tragedy’s before and since 1967, the generosity of Tasmanians and also mainlanders, was significant.
“Tasmanians faced with a large natural disaster…are incredibly generous, and at that time we were supported by the generosity of many people from the mainland. …We were overwhelmed by people sending clothes and the necessities of life. People gave up their shacks and any other accommodation they might have had to house people in the interim while they rebuilt their properties. I also want to acknowledge the fantastic efforts that community members and volunteers generally made, risking their own lives in many cases to help others.”2
I am pleased to say that I have been able to publish the story of my family in this event. It is a story that children can enjoy and I love that while it is about the grey Ferguson tractor, it is a true story. A story that brings to life an event that is fading into the mists of last century’s history.
Whilst the tractor has passed from our family’s hands, he has found a great owner in the Reardon family at Lymington. And he is still employed harrowing and plowing.