Post 1939 Recovery & Salvage
The recovery program managed by the FCV after the 1939 fires was massive in scope. This article will continue to expand as new information is collected and added. However, it is hoped that, even at this early stage, it provides a reasonable insight into what was probably the largest forestry operation in Victoria's history.
The 1939 fires in Victoria were devastating in terms of life and private property, but the impact on the State's timber production forests was also highly significant, as FCV figures illustrate.
“More intensive surveys of the burned areas have been carried out in each forest district. These reveal that the area of State Forest burned totalled 3,370,870 acres, comprising 1,455,548 acres of reserved forest and 1,915,322 acres of unoccupied forested Crown lands. An analysis of the damage gives the following figures:" (Note: all areas given in acres)
Source: FCV Annual Report,1938/39
not likely to recover
but likely to recover
FCV Annual Reports
Galbraith AV, 1937
Trestle Bridges and Tramways. The timber industry of Erica district 1910-1950. Mike McCarthy, 1983
The Hand of Man, was produced by the FCV. It illustrates the impacts of the severe fire behaviour on life and property, but also the salvage and other recovery actions taken by the FCV from 1939.
Victorian Year Book, 1938-39 (Extract)
Harvesting and fires had changed the age class of the Mountain Ash forest somewhat, but there were vast areas of mature forest burnt. What did this mature forest look like?
The following information comes from Galbraith AV, (1937), and it provides a good picture of the size of the mature forest, as do Figures 1 to 5.
"Height - Fairly complete information with regard to maximum heights attained by this species is given in articles by AD Hardy, published in the Gum Tree in 1921 and 1927. The greatest height authentically quoted is 320 ft. 1 in., which was the measured height of a tree found on a spur of Mt. Baw Baw, Gippsland (91 miles from Melbourne). Trees with heights of up to 375 feet are quoted on what appears to he reliable authority, but unfortunately those trees are now destroyed and actual certainty as regards their height must remain a matter for conjecture. A tree which is standing at the present time in the Cumberland Valley, about 14 miles from Marysville, has a height of 301 ft. 6 in. While it is possible that a close inspection of this region may mean the discovery of trees of somewhat greater height, it appears unlikely that anything surpassing 326 feet will now he found. At the same time, the fact that trees of much greater height once existed appears unquestionable."
"The following are measured heights of trees still existing in the Cumberland valley on one sample acre."
"This acre plot carries 27 trees with an average total height of 266 feet."
"Generally speaking, the height of trees in virgin stands falls below the maximum already given. Reference to Graph 1, which was compiled during the preparation of Mountain Ash volume tables in Erica District, giving average heights for 2-ft. girth classes in virgin stands, indicates that the average height of mature Mountain Ash in virgin stands varies between 180 feet and 240 feet."
Major fires in the areas of Noojee and Erica in 1926 and 1932 killed significant areas of mature Mountain Ash forest. Following 1939 there was concern that any of these areas that had been burnt again would fail to regenerate. Similar concerns were held for areas that had been harvested prior to the fires. There were areas that had regenerated following the fires in both 1926 and 1932 that survived the 1939 fires. They showed up in the extensive mapping of these regrowth forests that occurred throughout the 1960's and possibly into the 1970's.
"Throughout February and March 1926, forest fires raged across large areas of Gippsland. In total, 60 people died. There was widespread destruction to farms, houses and sawmills. It is estimated 400,000 hectares of forest were burnt. The fires reached their peak on 14 February (Black Sunday) when 31 people died at Warburton near Melbourne. Other areas badly affected include Noojee, Kinglake, Erica and the Dandenong Ranges."
Source: Australian Institute for Disaster Resilience"
"Bush fires at the Brown Coalmine Township (now Yallourn North - ed) and Yallourn caused considerable damage yesterday. For a time both townships were in danger, and the brown coalmine is still menaced. A fire ignited the coal face in the new opencut, and the coal is still burning. Damage to machinery at Yallourn is estimated at nearly £40,000. Several fresh outbreaks of fire occurred in the area between Moe and Walhalla and Fumina and Erica. Walhalla for a time was menaced, but is now believed to be safe. Fires which have burnt across the country to the east of Gould (now under the Moondarra Reservoir - ed), Erica, and Knott’s siding on the railway line from Moe to Walhalla, and south from Walhalla have caused grave concern in the last few days although their progress towards the Brown Coal Mine and Yallourn has been less rapid since the weekend owing to the absence of wind."
Source: The Argus Feb 18 1926
"The total number of outbreaks recorded was 426 which affected 478,000 acres of Reserved forest and 498,000 acres of Crown Lands. 145,000 acres of the Reserved forest and 62,000 acres of Crown Lands were badly damaged."
Source: FCV Annual Report, 1925/26
In the North-eastern districts, the Yarra Valley, the Neerim and Erica districts, the reported losses were heavy, but subsequent surveys by officers of the staff reveal the fact that the losses, though great, were over-estimated in early reports. By prompt action in several areas, particularly in the mountain ash country, the timber at first thought ruined will be utilized and will find its way into commercial use."
Source: FCV Annual Report, 1925/26
"Following normal spring weather, a hot dry period, commencing just before Christmas, was experienced during which practically no rain was recorded throughout the State and hot northerly winds were of frequent occurrence. The culminating point was reached during the night of 4th February, when a fierce northerly gale of terrific intensity caused fires to develop and spread with extraordinary rapidity, so much so that it would have been impossible to check them by any human agency. During the morning of the following day, a providential change in direction of the wind, accompanied by heavy rains, occurred, otherwise the destruction must have been even much more serious than was actually the case. An extraordinary feature of these fires was the unusual fierceness with which they burned during the night, a phenomenon very rarely known.
Unfortunately, the fires were responsible for regrettable loss of life in addition to causing enormous damage to valuable forest areas and private property. The majority of the damage occurred between 21st December nnd 6th February. corresponding to the incidence of the hot, dry spell referred to. During this period, 179 out of a total of 230 fires which damaged State Forest during the year occurred, with consequent damage estimated at over £40,000 to 186,000 acres of State Forest, exclusive of damage done to unreserved Crown lands".
Source: FCV Annual Report, 1931/32
Follow up: Areas burnt
Apart from the enormous impact on future timber supplies with the death of most of the mature Mountain Ash forest, there was great concern about extensive areas that might not regenerate.
"A very serious aftermath of the fires, .... was the wholesale destruction of immature regrowth stands. .... Their potential value as sawmilling units of the future was enormous, however. Although the average age of these stands was approximately 10-15 years, their destruction actually represents a loss of considerably more than this period of growth. .... a considerable proportion of the areas carrying these regrowth stands are not expected to regenerate naturally, and artificial reforestation will be a prolonged and expensive operation. Actually such reforestation measures on an extensive scale must be held in abeyance pending the elaboration of fire protection plans for these areas, and the results of initial experimental investigation to determine a satisfactory afforestation technique.”
Source: FCV Annual Report, 1938/39
"Perhaps the most serious aspect of the destruction of the immature stands in the mountain forests is the prospect of failure of natural regeneration due to lack of seed trees. A considerable proportion of the areas affected carried seedling regrowth which resulted from previous fires, notably those of the 1926 and 1932 summers. Most of the seed trees on those areas were killed by these previous fires, with the result that over extensive areas none of the old seed trees are alive, and at the same time the regrowth had not reached the seed production stage."
Source: FCV Annual Report 1938/39
“The survey showed that, in the districts mentioned, over a total area of approximately 73,000 acres natural seedling reproduction cannot reasonably be expected."
Source: FCV Annual Report 1938/39
(Rubicon, Snob’s Creek, Little River, Acheron River and St Fillans)
(Cascade, Mount Erica, and Tyers River)
(Powelltown, Ada River, Latrobe River, Big Pat’s Creek, Mississippi Creek, Smyth’s Creek, and Toolangi)
(Loch Valley, Toorongo, Mc’Carthy’s Spur, Tarago River, and Bunyip River)
Follow up: Harvesting infrastructure losses.
The silvicultural system in place in Mountain Ash forests was based on the retention of seed trees, and it seems some Spring burning was done at times to reduce the level of hazard presented by logging slash.
"With the above considerations in view, the silvicultural system adopted in Mountain Ash country in Victoria is clear felling with the retention of seed trees. The provision of seed trees is considered essential as an insurance against subsequent damage of the regrowth before it reaches the stage when it bears fertile seed, and also to provide seed should there be no seed year immediately following exploitation fellings in the old crop. There is at present insufficient data on which to determine the optimum number of seed trees to be left, but as a provisional measure not less than four well-distributed trees are retained per acre."Source: Galbraith AV (1937)
The FCV also had a strong focus on returning forest to those areas where their regeneration was in doubt.
"The desirability of reafforesting such very valuable timber producing land was recognized by the Commission, and investigations were carried out over a number of years to determine the practicability of re-establishing the native hardwood crop by broadcast sowing of seed. Little success attended these efforts and, following the fires of 1939, it was decided to conduct intensive experimental work in connection with the planting of nursery propagated hardwoods.
Accordingly, a nursery was established at Loch Valley, a few miles north of Noojee, where Mountain Ash seedlings were raised by "tubing" and planted out. It was definitely proved that this species can be successfully re-established by this method.
Source: Evidence to the Rural Reconstruction Commission- FCV (1943)
Frank Smith managed this program at Loch Valley from September 1942, and an illustration of the work can be found in this newspaper article, which indicates that large numbers of Moutain Ash seedlings were being raised.
The uncertainty about regeneration on some areas (see earlier) meant that considerable planting was undertaken, and there are photos at right of planting that had occurred on the Toorongo Plateau by the FCV, and near Fernshaw by the Melbourne Metropolitan Board of Works. The planting rows at Fernshaw, to the right as you drove up the Black Spur, could still be discerned until at least into the late 1980's. The scale of the planting that was done is unknown at this stage.
History has shown, of course, that natural regeneration in the mature stands that were burnt was generally rapid and effective.
Follow up: Planted areas (location and extent)
Albert Lind, then the Minister of Forests and Lands, made a speech to Parliament on the 4 thof July 1939 in which he outlined the initial plan to salvage timber from the fire-affected areas.
The most important forest type, from the point of view of timber supplies, that was burnt in the 1939 fires was Mountain Ash (Eucalyptus regnans). The vast majority of this type was burnt and much of it was mature forest.
"With figures of previous assessment surveys in these stands available as a basis for computation, it was estimated that in the areas in question the log volume of timber killed amounted to 2,070,000,000 superficial feet, of which it would be economically practicable to salvage 916,000,000 superficial feet, the remainder being irrecoverable due to wind and fire damage or to inaccessibility.”
Source: FCV 1938/39 Annual Report
"The Government has already begun the work, in as much as it has provided a sum of 46,000 pounds (about $3.8 million in 2020) out of unemployment relief loan money for the construction of tracks, trams, and other facilities, to make it possible for millers to operate in the area concerned."
"It is proposed that all of this timber should be treated in two years,
in the following manner:
- The total expenditure required to cover the cost of salvage operations, whether done by way of advance to sawmillers or directly by the Commission, is estimated to be 468000 lbs (about 38 million in 2020) .... that is the amount provided for in the bill.
- Provision is made that advances to sawmillers may be made on terms as to repayment to be determined by the Forests Commission, with the approval of the Treasurer.
- It is proposed that repayment of the advances made to sawmillers shall be effected by means of a surcharge on the sawn timber produced by the Miller from the salvaged logs.
Salvage areas focused on access from Noojee, Tanjil Bren and Erica. In todays terms the salvage of 916 million sft HLV equates to about 2.75million m 3..
Follow up: Map mentioned in Lind's speech.
Galbraith AV (1937) describes in some detail the harvesting systems that were being used in the fire-killed forests before 1939. The main system was cable logging, which was increasingly being augmented by the use of crawler tractors which came into use in Victorian forests about 1934. Those systems would form the core of the harvesting methods in the salvage operations.
The extracts below are from "A New Beginning. The Story of Heyfield and the Sawmilling Industry, 1945-1995". This book by Brian Howell was written for, and published in 1995 by, the Heyfield Community Resource Centre. The FCRPA has permission to use extracts from the book.
"The second initiative was the granting in 1940-41 of quota allocations to eleven companies to log and mill the stands of timber centred on Tanjil Bren, some 40 kilometres from Noojee and extending eastwards to the slopes of Mt Baw Baw. At the same time, sawmills at Erica were also processing fire-killed ash from areas which had previously undergone logging."
"Later in the 1940's the mainstream of the logging operations shifted to Toorongo, the Upper Thompson and Matlock. Mills were established at these locations but logs were also carted to Noojee." (Howell B, 1995)
Salvage of Small Immature Fire-Killed Timber for Case Manufacture
"An important feature of salvage operations has been the recovery and marketing of large quantities of timber from smaLl-sized M01mtain Ash and Alpine Ash trees, the loss of which from a State.forestry standpoint constituted one of the most regrettable features of the 1939 fires, as these young stands represented the growing crop to replace the older forests being harvested. Under normal circumstances, only very small quantities of this timber would have been recoverable except as pulpwood, but a reduction in imports of softwood case timbers due to war conditions focussed the attention of case manufacturers on the necessity for a more extensive use of native hardwoods for case making. For this purpose, young Ash timber has proved very satisfactory, even for the manufacture of high quality export packs for which it has been accepted by the Commerce Department. .iVIuch of Victoria's primary produce, such as butter, eggs, dried fruit and cheese, will this year be exported in attractive boxes made from young fire-killed Victorian timber. Sawmillers have been encouraged to establish mills in the forest for the cutting of case timber, and many areas have been allotted for licensed logging. In addition, the Commission has used part of its timber salvage funds for the establishment of departmental logging camps."
Source: FCV Annual Report, 1939/40 (Perhaps put in photo column)
Storing and Preserving
"One of the areas ravaged by the fires was the ash forest to the east of Noojee and extending to Mount Erica. Unlike the mixed species timbers of the foothills, the ash eucalypts cannot withstand a burn of the magnitude of the 1939 fires. Therefore, it became imperative that the fire-killed trees be harvested for timber before they deteriorated through weather and insect attack."
"The need for a quick response was further emphasised by the demands of the war effort, which required ever-increasing quantities of timber. Indeed, it is interesting to speculate how much of this resource would have been left to fall over and rot had it not been for this unprecedented demand. It is hard to see how the housing industry, still recovering from the depression years, could have utilised the enormous amount of material harvested and processed from the fire-killed ash forests during the 1940s."
"Two initiatives were undertaken to enable the fire-killed trees in the forests of Tanjil Bren to be processed before weathering and insects rendered them fit only for pulpwood. The first was salvage falling. This involved falling best quality trees which were then cut into long lengths and the ends coated with a preservative emulsion. These were allowed to lie on the ground where they were soon sheltered by an undergrowth of ash regeneration and scrub which grew profusely following the fires. The extent to which this could be done was limited for practical reasons but it did work very well. These fallen trees were in excellent condition, with few cracks, and sapwood which was damp, soft and easy to saw.""The CSIRO’s advice had been to keep the logs wet with water sprays but, on a long straight stretch of Mundic Creek, something better was attempted. A large timber dam was built across the creek by Forests Commission engineer, Phillip Avery. The dam was of massive crib-log construction, with the upstream side faced with heavy planking. However, not long after its completion, a violent storm on the Toorongo Plateau filled Mundic Creek to overflowing; the planking failed and the dam burst. It was not repaired and, consequently, the dump remained only partially submerged. (Ref to Peter Evan's paper here - first three paras from Howell)
Follow up: There are also photos of water offtakes at Bells that could go here.
Transporting & Converting
- Rebuilding of tramlines by industry and the FCV (which already operated a tramline in Erica before 1939.)
- Transfer of State Mill from Nayook? to Erica.
- New roads
- FCV road construction camp on Toorongo/ Another FCV camp there?
- Alan Threader's recollections of his time on Toorongo. (on audio)
- Add vfh0388 in photo display
The original salvage target for sawlogs was 916,000,000 sft HLV over a couple of years. However, sawlog (and pulpwood) salvage was still being recorded in FCV Annual Reports until the mid-1950's, by which time there was concern about the negative impact of harvesting on regeneration.
The final sawlog volume salvaged was about 1.43 million sft HLV, with the 1954/55 FCV Annual Report indicating:
"At the close of the financial year, the total quantity of fire-killed timber which had been utilized was 1,434,355,439 superficial feet, Hoppus log volume, against an estimated recoverable volume of 916 million superficial feet. In view of the fact that operators are finding it necessary to push further back into valuable stands of advanced regrowth, greater restrictions must necessarily be imposed in regard to the selection of areas on which utilization can still be allowed. In most cases deterioration of the dead timber has reached a stage where its utilizable value could not justify the damage which its extraction would cause to the regrowth." Source: with the 1954/55 FCV Annual Report indicating:
In today's terms the original salvage target for sawlogs was about 2.75 million m 3 . The volume actually harvested was about 4.3 million m 3 , 56% more than planned.
Follow up: Comparison with sawlog volumes from more recent years to give perspective, and a graph showing volumes harvested % by year would be good. There may also be road construction figures to go in here.