Hell on earth: south Australia’s worst bushfires

Hell on earth: south Australia’s worst bushfires

13 November 2016

published by http://www.adelaidenow.com.au

Australia — That was the description of the devastating 1958 pine forest fire given by Kalangadoo Police Sergeant D. Flint on the day of the fatal fire.

He had previously spoken about how he had entered the blazing forest to look for those trapped inside its raging walls.

The brave officer came across seven bodies before discovering the final fatality.

He told The Advertiser on April 7, 1958: “While I was at the Glencoe end of the fire, a jeep brought back several injured men and I was told it was thought that other men were trapped in the forest.

“I got a jeep with a department officer and two other men and went back to a break in the pines.

“Just as we got to the break, a man staggered out and collapsed in front of the jeep.

“We put him in the jeep and took him away for first-aid.

“I went into the break to see what I could find.

The trees were still burning and there was a lot of smoke. I had to dodge falling branches.

“When I got to the three trucks I had a quick look around and counted seven men who were dead. I then had to get out because of the smoke and heat.

“I went and got a jeep and arranged for a truck to pick up the bodies.

“When we got back, ambulance officers from the Mount Gambier unit had already placed some of the dead into a jeep.

“About 100 yards down the hill from the truck, I found another body — apparently the man had tried to make a break for it but he couldn’t keep ahead of the flames.”

The three fire trucks, carrying the eight men who perished, had entered a firebreak between two blocks of pines when the fire was slowly burning.

Suddenly, a 64km/h northerly wind whipped the fire across the break, trapping the men before they had time to escape.

The men who lost their lives were Remo Quaggiato, Charles Dolling, Bertram Wilson, Victor Fensom, Maurice Treloar, Francis Burdett, Walter Pearce and Bernadus Damhuis.

Only three years earlier, on January 2, 1955, fierce winds and extreme heat combined to cause a monster fire that would come to be called “Black Sunday”.

Extreme heat and fierce winds helped create a monster on January 2, 1955.

It ravaged the Adelaide Hills, destroying the state’s best orchards and flattening the Governor’s summer residence, Marble Hill.

Nearly three decades later, South Australia would suffer one of its darkest days – the “Ash Wednesday” fires of February 1983.

It was the first time the State Government declared a state of emergency.

In total, 28 people died as fires tore through the Adelaide Hills, McLaren Flat, Clare, the Eyre Peninsula and the South-East.

Many famous landmarks were gutted, including the Eagle On The Hill Hotel, Mt Lofty Summit kiosk, Bonython Castle and the Norton Summit Hotel.

“It was as if someone was saying to the fire, ‘burn this one, no, take this one instead’,” one victim told The Advertiser at the time.

“It seemed so very far away at first. But it seemed only like minutes later that my house was on fire.”

It is a common observation from people under threat of bushfire — one minute, a red glow rises over a distant hill, the next minute, fire is on their doorstep.

One thing that the state’s bushfire history has taught the Country Fire Service is: “Bushfires will happen”.

They are a part of our past and will be a feature of our future.

Mr A.P. Malpas, the deputy director of the CFS in 1983, when he told The Advertiser: “Adelaide is designed for disaster. It will always be a fire hazard.”

Country Fire Service assistant chief officer Rob Sandford — who has 34 years of experience in the service — said bushfires will always happen but it takes a recipe of conditions to create one that will devastate the state.

“Fires are fires but I have been surprised on three occasions,” he said.

“I was surprised by Ash Wednesday — just the fire behaviour, the sheer speed and the impact it had. Similarly again, at Wangary (on the Eyre Peninsula) in 2005 and then more recently in Pinery. Pinery was uncontrollable from when it started until the weather conditions abated.

“While we have fires each season, some are controllable but we get those occasions when fires happen and they’re just not controllable.

“The focus for those sorts of events is about that preparation and what the community needs to do. From a CFS prospective, our volunteers and staff are at the highest level of preparedness from now right through until the end of the fire season.

“The community needs to be as prepared as we are — it’s not a matter of if, but when.

“It is going to happen. People need to heed the message about being prepared.

“It’s the key to surviving — that’s what it is all about, surviving.

“Homes can be rebuilt, sheds, fences all that, while they’re tragic losses, they’re not as tragic as a life lost.

“When you look back post a big event, people are prepared the following season but a level of complacency creeps in and people start thinking, ‘if it’s happened to us once, it won’t happen again’. History has shown that it will.”

Data on bushfires between 1917 and 1945 is not comprehensive but reports show there were about 44 major fires recorded.

Bushfires raged through the 1950s, including the 1955 Black Sunday and 1958 South-East pine forest fires.

During 1960, a large fire burnt in northern Yorke Peninsula.

Two other major fires occurred that year — one near Wirrabara in the Flinders Ranges, and the other at Tintinara.

In 1961, a fire in pastoral country burnt a large area of Wilpena Pound.

Forty major fires were reported during the 1980s.

Ash Wednesday I and II fires occurred in February 1980 and February 1983 respectively. Over that decade, more than 830,000ha of land was burnt.

Ten fires in the north east of the state burnt in excess of 10,000ha each.

One, attributed to 43 lightning strikes in November 1989, was estimated to burn more than 600,000ha of land.

Other fires that posed a significant threat during the 1980s were Horsnell Gully, Black Hill, Port Lincoln, Kapunda, Strathalbyn, Morialta, and Kersbrook.

Over the following decade, 70 major fires ripped through South Australia — the largest ones were recorded at Ernabella, Flinders Chase and Ngarkat.

At the beginning of the new millennium, 53 major fires were recorded with the biggest blazes at Mt Rescue, Gawler Ranges, De Molle River and Ngarkat.

On January 11, 2005, two fires of major significance occurred — one at Wangary on the Eyre Peninsula and the other at Mt Osmond in the Adelaide Hills.

The Wangary fire burnt with significant losses including nine lives lost, 93 homes destroyed and about 47,000 livestock killed.

For 10 days from December 6, 2007, a significant dry lightning storm ignited around 14 fires on Kangaroo Island.

Of these, six developed into major bushfires and burnt out of control.

The suppression response mobilised for these fires was the largest in South Australian history, and involved 1400 people and resources from South Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia.

The Bangor fire raged for a month — from January 14 to February 14, 2014 — and threatened Laura, Wirrabara and Stone Hut, and the small community of Beetaloo Valley.

In January last year, the Sampson Flat fire was declared a major emergency as the fire burned uncontrolled for four days, destroying homes, businesses, forest, grazing land, vineyards, livestock and properties.

The damage bill was estimated at $13 million.

South Australia experienced its last major bushfire on November 25 last year when fierce flames travelled at speed through the Mid-North’s wheat belt.

The fire impacted people, livestock and townships including Pinery, Mallala, Wasleys, Roseworthy, Freeling, Hamley Bridge, Daveyston, Greenock and Kapunda.

More than 1700 firefighters responded, with support from the Victoria Fire Authorities.

Sadly, two lives were lost and 91 homes were destroyed.

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