"The past is never fully gone. It is absorbed into the present and the future. It stays to shape what we are and what we do."
Sir William Deane, Governor-General of Australia, Inaugural Vincent Lingiari Memorial Lecture, August 1996.

The 1939 Fires

"These fires were lit by the hand of man."
(Stretton, LEB)

The section "What Changed?" was written by Mike Leonard

"We began our training at the forestry school just two years after the catastrophe, and we found that almost every statement about the department and the industry was prefaced by 'before 1939' or 'since 1939' and everyone was quite toey".  Murray Paine

Headlines

In the early days of January 1939 one of the greatest natural disasters in Australian history fell on the State of Victoria. Over a period of a week hundreds of fires that had been burning spasmodically across a large part of the State gathered into a series of vast conflagrations that swept the forest areas, destroying homes and surrounding settlements, in some case almost obliterating small townships, and killing seventy-one people. The fires were accompanied by record temperatures and winds that reached velocities estimated at over one hundred miles an hour. They created freak conditions that in turn accentuated the intensity of the flames and the extent of the damage they caused. Men and animals died horrible deaths. Sometimes their bodies were found after the fires had passed, charred beyond recognition; in other cases they died seemingly from suffocation, scarcely marked by the flames. Strange sounds and sights were reported by those caught in the inferno who escaped to tell their stories. Matches burned blue in an atmosphere apparently charged with an excess of carbon-dioxide. Great clouds of flame leaped from hill to hill, driven by windstorms that carried masses of inflammable gas. Dull booming sounds were heard in advance of the walls of flame. Solid metal melted in the heat. When it was all over, large areas of the State presented a grim scene of desolation. Across thousands of square miles the trees stood stark and blackened. The ash from their destruction lay deep on the baked earth. The tall tree-ferns that filled the mountain valleys had simply disappeared, along with all the rest of the vegetation. Fifteen hundred people were left sheltering in camps and temporary homes. Others lay in hospital wards, their limbs and bodies burned by the flames which had surrounded or passed over them. WS Noble (1977)(Frank Noble, a son of WS Noble, has kindly given the FCRPA permission to use his father's book on this site.)

Seventy-one lives were lost. Sixty-nine mills were burned. Millions of acres of fine forest, of almost incalculable value, were destroyed or badly damaged. Townships were obliterated in a few minutes. Mills, houses, bridges, tramways, machinery, were burned to the ground; men, cattle, horses, sheep, were devoured by the fires or asphyxiated by the scorching debilitated air. Generally, the numerous fires which during December, in many parts of Victoria, had been burning separately, as they do in any summer, either “under control” as it is falsely and dangerously called, or entirely untended, reached the climax of their intensity and joined forces in a devastating confluence of flame on Friday, the 13th of January. LEB Stretton (1939)

 

This map, from WS Noble's book, illustrates the extent of the fires and indicates that the area burnt exceeded two million hectares.

Four FCV people lost their lives.

"It is with very deep regret that the Commission records the tragic deaths of four officers and employees of the Department in the bush fires of January last. They were:

James Hartley Barling, Forester aged 31 years
Charles Isaae Demby, Forest Overseer, aged 56 years
Hedley John West, Forest Foreman, aged 40 years
Hugh McKinnon, Forest Employee,aged 57 years

Messrs. Barling and Demby, who were the first victims of the fires, lost their lives near Toolangi on Sunday, 8th January, Mr. West in the Rubicon blaze on Wednesday, 10thJanuary, whilst Mr. McKinnon died in hospital from injuries received on Friday, 13th January in the Loch Valley district near Noojee.

This was the first occasion on which members of the Commission's staff lost their lives as a direct result of forest fires. These men died in faithful discharge of their duty, and their unflinching heroism in the face of fearful odds must serve as an inspiration not only to their colleagues but also to every individual in the community." FCV Annual Report, 1938/39

 

Personal Account

Jim McKinty, 1939

 
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Mountain Ash Forest on Mount Horsfall about 1920
Source: B Fry
Extensive areas of mature mountain ash forest were burnt.

What Changed?

Stretton’s 1939 Inquiry, conducted in just four months (and weighing-in at a mere 39 pages!) was, arguably, the most profound and far-reaching report of its kind yet published in Australia.

Well into the 1970s Stretton’s 1939 report, and its strategic analysis of the landscape fire challenge, in an area these days known internationally to be one of the three most fire-prone regions on Earth, was still playing a major role in the education of future forest managers, and was still informing related public policy making, and associated government funding arrangements.

Initially however, the delivery of Stretton’s report was quickly overrun by Australia’s involvement in World War Two, and the related debate stalled in the Victorian Parliament. In 1944 serious fires in West Gippsland, near Yallourn, prompted a public outcry and the State government tasked Stretton with the conduct of a second fire-related Royal Commission. In that report Stretton returned to a number of his earlier themes.

In summary, the impacts of Stretton’s investigations were to see initiatives that included:

  • The first major public debates about the need to actively use (prescribed) fire, to help control the bushfire menace; with the use of prescribed fire subsequently becoming a major component of forest and woodland management in south-eastern Australia
  • Changes to the Victorian ‘Forests Act’ with the Forests Commission taking complete responsibility for fire suppression and prevention on all public land including State forests, unoccupied Crown Lands, water catchments, and National Parks; plus a buffer extending one mile (1.6 km.) beyond public land boundaries onto private land. The change was huge and the Forests Commission’s related responsibilities grew from 2.4 million to 6.5 million hectares, or to around one-third of the State
  • The movement of sawmills and associated small settlements to beyond the forest estate
  • Stringent regulation of burning and fire safety measures associated with sawmills, grazing licensees and the general public
  • The compulsory construction of ‘dugouts’ at forest sawmills, expansion of the forest road and firebreak network, and the construction of forest dams
  • A much greater role for surveillance through the expansion of the fire tower network, the FCV’s communication system, and through the increasing use of aircraft; and
  • The establishment of a single firefighting authority for ‘country Victoria’ (i.e. the non-metropolitan rural areas), bringing together the previous volunteer Bush Fire Brigades and Country Fire Brigades. A new ‘Country Fire Authority’ commenced operations in April 1945

Some 66 years later, in August 2010, a national Inquiry by the Australian Senate described itself, in its final report, as the nineteenth major bushfire-related inquiry to be conducted in Australia since 1939, and the third to be conducted federally since 2003. In evidence to the 2010 Inquiry, Professor Peter Kanowski (an author of a 2004 COAG Inquiry report, the first such national Inquiry in the nation’s history) said that his earlier Inquiry had identified:

‘….a repeated cycle of response by governments and the community to major fire events: first, suppression and recovery processes are always accompanied by assertions, accusations and allocations of blame, even while the fires are still burning; second, inquiries are established and report; third, recommendations are acted upon, to varying degrees; fourth, the passage of time sees growing complacency and reduced levels of preparedness... and the cycle begins again with the next major bushfire event…’ (COAG, 2004) 1

Expanding on this theme, in what was to subsequently become an award-winning essay, and written within days of Victoria’s 2009 ‘Black Saturday’ fires - the deadliest peacetime disaster in the nation’s history - the Australian National University historian Professor Tom Griffiths sought to remind his readers of how Judge Leonard Stretton’s seminal Inquiry, in Victoria in 1939, had sought to find words adequately to describe how:

‘…rampant flame had scourged a country that considered itself civilised’,

and how Stretton went on to define,

‘an active, half-conscious denial of the danger of fire, and a kind of community complicity in the deferral of responsibility….’

Griffiths observed that,

‘…In the seventy years since 1939, we have lived through a revolution in scientific research and environmental understanding and we have come to a clearer understanding of the peculiar history and fire ecology of these forests. We have fewer excuses for innocence. We knew this terrible day would come. Why, then, was there such an appalling loss of life?...’ 2

1Australian Senate. 2010. The incidence and severity of bushfires across Australia. Report of the Agricultural and Related Industries Select Committee. Commonwealth of Australia. 255 pp.
2Arguably the best recent summary of the fire threat faced by the community in S.E. Australia is found in: Griffiths, T. (2009). We have still not lived long enough. ‘Inside Story’ website - (February 16th 2009). The essay won the Alfred Deakin Prize in the 2009 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards.

Resources

Report of the Royal Commission. - The Commissioner, LEB Stretton, submitted his Report on 16th May 1939.

The Hand of Man. - The FCV produced a film about the fires and the post-fire recovery and timber salvage operations.

The Sun News-Pictorial. - A paper was produced on or about the 17th January 1939 illustrating the impacts of the fires in a number of communities. The sale proceeds were to go to the Lord Mayor's 1939 Bush Fire Relief Committee. Note that in this publication the circumstances of the deaths of two FCV people, Charles Isaac Demby and John Hartley Barling, are not accurate.

Ordeal by Fire. - The Week a State Burned Up.  WS Noble, 1977.

Black Friday. - An award-winning on-line documentary that was produced in 2003. It includes interviews with  Black Friday survivors; expert opinion and analysis; an interactive map that tracks the path of the fires; a timeline that places the fires in a local and international context; a media archive; and transcripts from the subsequent Royal Commission into the fires.

Other Material

Paper by C Irvine via B Marsden - looks incomplete. Part of submission to Royal Commission?

Photo Galleries

Photos from Ordeal by Fire

Woods Point Gallery

Gallery from Other Sources (To be added to over time)