First published in The Age January 16, 1939
WORST DISASTER IN AUSTRALIA’S HISTORY
Total Deaths 64
Refugees from the Ada Mill near Noojee emerge from a dugout.
Many Trapped at Mills
Whole Family Lost Near Noojee
Amazing Escapes from Flames
(From Our Special Reporters)
Proving to be the most appalling bush fires in the history of Australia, the Victorian outbreaks have now resulted in the deaths of 64 persons, a total of 35 being added to the list over the weekend.
Whole townships have been wiped out; the damage to property, houses and timber is running into millions of pounds; thousands of cattle have been burned to death, and scores of persons are on the “missing” list.
Present indications are that further extensive fires can be expected today, but with the change in weather conditions and some scattered showers, the position should rapidly improve tomorrow.
Overtaken By Flames
Man and Horse Succumb
People rescued from the bush fires.
Bairnsdale – Workmen employed on the Hill Top Hotel construction went to Cobungra Station to assist in fighting the fire, but they were trapped when the wind caused fresh outbreaks. With refugees from the station, including several children, they plunged into the Victoria River, and remained there until rescued.
Ernest Richards, 30 years, an employee of the station, set out on horseback to go to his wife, who had recently returned home with a baby. He was overtaken by the flames, and he and his horse were burnt to death. His wife and child had been taken into Omeo earlier by the doctor for safety.
Harry Morgan, a partner of Morgan Bros., who have extensive cattle runs on the Victoria River, beyond Cobungra, was brought to the Bairnsdale Hospital yesterday suffering from severe burns.
Fears were entertained for the safety of Charles Rowe, another cattle run owner in the Cobungra area, who has not been heard of for two days, but he was brought into Omeo today suffering from severe burns.
A young man, believed to be Barry Richards of Cobungra, is reported missing. An unconfirmed story states that cattlemen on the Dargo high plains have not been heard of.
Remains of the Winding House at the High Level Sumit near Noojee.
Cattlemen, who came to Omeo on Saturday, stated that the flames from fires on the Bogongs were hundreds of feet above the mountain tops.
The fires at Benambra today are being held in check, and are being watched closely.
Thousands of cattle have been burned to death in the shocking fires.
Omeo Hospital Destroyed
Omeo – The fires swept over the mount at 8:30pm on Friday into Omeo. The hospital, from which two men and three woman patients were removed to safety at Bairnsdale, was destroyed. Because of the heat the car which removed them could not be started, and Matron Lee played a hose on the car. When fear of the fire was greatest the matron was preparing morphine for patients. The historic Golden Age Hotel, 22 homes and 11 shops were destroyed.
The engine of the car in which the hospital patients were being removed once stalled, and there were moments of terrifying suspense until the driver succeeded in restarting it. The patients were taken to the Hill Top Hotel, a concrete building in course of construction.
Dr. Little and Matron Lee were in attendance here to Mrs. Charles McNamara, of Cohungra, who gave birth to a baby girl within an hour of being transported from the burning hospital.
The brick house at Yelland’s Mill from where the survivors rushed out of when the roof collapsed. Credit:The Age Archives
SIXTEEN PERISH IN MATLOCK FOREST
Women’s Epic Courage
Fifteen men perished and one man miraculously escaped at one mill, and one woman lost her life while 26 of her comrades escaped at another mill on Friday, when the heights of the Matlock Forest were swept with flames, the fury of which was unprecedented in the experience of millers in the district
Borne across the mountain tops on a tornado-like wind, fire demolished the five mills in the area – James Fitzpatrick’s, where fifteen men lost their lives; Yelland’s, at which the woman died; Porter’s, from which all men had been evacuated the day before; Richards’ and W.P Fitzpatrick’s mill, at which some small salvage of plant may be possible.
Courage almost past belief was displayed by the four women who survived at Yelland’s. Aided by the men, they dashed through flame from a brick house when the roof collapsed, and were forced to stand on the fire-blasted ground, tending three terrified children, until the heat had subsided sufficiently for them to find other shelter.
An hour before the fire reached the mills, men from Fitzpatrick’s, a mile away, tried to induce the 27 souls at Yelland’s to join them at their mill for greater safety. They refused, preferring to stand by their own homes.
Survivors from the Yelland’s mill, in the Matlock Forest.Credit:The Age Archives
By time the fury of the fire broke, after half an hour of almost complete darkness, the entire company at Yelland’s had assembled on the veranda of the one brick house, where they had collected their most precious belongings.
The flames seemed to break upon them from all quarters, and forced them into the four-roomed building. Through the windows they watched, terror-stricken, as the fire struck the first wooden home of Mr. H. J. Henderson, managing director for the owners, Yelland Brothers, adjoining; a large motor truck standing nearby, then 24 drums of fuel oil and petrol, all of which burst into flames and created such intense heat that after an hour and three-quarters had passed they were terrified to see the roof above them cracking.
Smashing the windows, the men seized the women and children, and thrusting them into the open, except Mrs. Maynard, a cook, who, in a state of collapse, refused to leave. Every second of delay endangered the rest of the party, and as the roof collapsed they fled to a small clearing over which the fire had already swept. After remaining in this precarious situation for more than an hour it was considered safe to try to procure water from a spring nearby, but the water proved too hot to be used, and the survivors, sought to pacify the three screaming children – a 20-months-old baby girl, a 4-year-old boy (neither of whom was seriously harmed, and a 3-year-old girl, who was suffering acutely from severe burns on both legs.
The remains of James Fitzpatrick’s mill, in the Matlock Forest.Credit:The Age Archives
The only provisions which the 26 survivors had saved were ½ lb. of tea and a piece of fruit cake, brought to them the day before from Fitzpatrick’s Mill.
As night approached the women and children were made as comfortable as was possible in a small shelter improvised from galvanised iron and odd pieces of timber, into which had been placed, before the fire occurred, the camp’s medical supplied and a few blankets and personal belongings. Here they remained for the night, while great logs smouldered around them and burning trees crashed dangerously nearby.
Once the immediate danger was over two of the mill hands – Messrs. E. Silver and C. Sutherland – crossed to James Fitzpatrick’s mill, a mile away. There they discovered the appalling calamity that had befallen their comrades.
Mr G. Sellers, the sole survivor of sixteen men who were at James Fitpatrick’s mill.Credit:The Age Archives
As they approached the smouldering sawdust heap they were astounded to see the figure of a man wrapped in a blanket. Running towards him, they found George Sellers, the sole survivor of one of the most tragic episodes that the mountain has ever known. Around him in the debris lay the bodies of all but four of his workmates, who had perished in a frantic endeavour to escape.
Later two other bodies were found lying on a skid track leading from the mill. The third was discovered in a 13-foot water tank, where, apparently he had been scolded to death; and a fourth, that of Harry Illingworth, who had gone to the mill from W. P. Fitzpatrick’s mill, three miles distant to visit his father, William Illingworth. His body was found within a few hundred yards of a cleared paddock known as The Oaks, a mile and a half away, to which he had raced in an effort to reach safety.
Sellers was taken to Yelland’s mill, where he told an astonishing story of fortitude. “When the flames struck the mill,” he said, “we raced for safety. Most of the men ran behind the boiler house. I picked up a blanket and soaked it in a tub of water, and shouted to Gladigo to share it with me. Gladigo tried to run for it and the flames caught him. With the blanket wrapped closely round me, and one corner held in my mouth to prevent me from inhaling smoke, I stood in the open while the flames swept overhead. When the blanket began to dry I had to rush to the tub to wet it again. For nearly two hours I kept this up until most of the danger had passed. It was the most terrible experience of my life. I would not part with that blanket now for anything.”
FIRE RACES OVER HILL TOPS
Tragedy At Saxon’s Mill
Eight Persons Dead
Warragul – The tragic, but unbroken figures of 37 survivors of the fire at Saxon’s mill, Fumina North, arrived at Moe and Warragul on Saturday night. All were exhausted. Some had burnt hands, and two were totally blind. All were without possessions.
The bodies of eight persons who were suffocated or burnt near the mill have been taken to Warragul, and have been identified.
In front of the Rowley homestead was a mass of burning, impenetrable debris. It is thought Poynton died while running to Saxton’s dugout for shelter. Fire came upon the mill through the tops of the tall timber at 1:30 pm on Friday. By 2.10 pm 37 mill hands had collected in two dugouts near the mill. Gorey had left to help Mrs. Saxton to take valuables from their beautiful home to a small dugout near the house. When the fire cut off communications, 31 men were in the big dugout, six in a smaller one nearby and Mr. and Mrs. Saxton and Gorey were in the dugout near the house. Impelled by a roaring north-west wind flames leaped across the clearing. Big lumps of wood flaming against a sky as dark as night ignited everything they touched.
The sign for the town of Narbethong on the Healesville Marysville road.Credit:Les Dory
Collapse After Fight
Squads of picked men with wet bags sallied outside in relays, keeping the timbering of the dugout, which supported the earthen roof, from catching fire. After a minute they would return and lie on the ground in a semi-conscious state. Four mill horses and a pony, which were free, dashed round the clearing screaming with pain, but after enduring the heat for half an hour they went mad and galloped off into the timer, where their charred remains were found later. Two of the men broke down under the terrible strain, and blindness came to others.
According to George Maxfield, in a small dugout nearby, the wind and noise were so tremendous that it seemed like the concussion of great trees falling all around. The heat became unbearable and the roof of the smaller dugout caught fire, but luckily a tank over the roof fell when the roof gave way, filling the hole and pouring water over the burning supports. Scooping up the mud the men filled up the cracks and kept out the flames. By 4:30pm, when the wind changed, the men were able to issue from both dugouts and rush through smoke and burning trees to Saxton’s dugout. They immediately saw that the inmates had been suffocated.
Grim Scene in Ruins
What a few hours before had been a fine mill, situated in tall, mountain ash country, had been turned into a ruin, and not a blade of green grass existed. Skeletons of three motor cars, a motor cycle and mill machinery were all the remained at the mill. All that was left of the house were two chimneys, a bath and a wash basin.
Burnt out Post Office at NarbethongCredit:Les Dory
Ben Rowley had been warned to vacate his property and come to the big dugout in case of fire. On the previous day he had started to dig his own dugout, on this advice, but when, after a walk of two miles, mill hands came to the homestead they found his pick and shovel in the hole where he left them on Thursday. He saved his house in the fire of 1926, and thought he could do so again. The party found the house in ruins. Skeletons and heaps of ash were all that remained of the couple and three children, who had evidently been trapped in the house before they could do anything, and who met death without a hope.
FAMILY TRAPPED AT HALL’S GAP
Boy Dead; Mother and Brothers In Hospital
Stalwell – A boy is dead and his mother and two brothers are in hospital, as a result of burns received at Hall’s Gap. The family was trapped on the road when a tyre of their trailer blew out.
Eric Habel Saddle, of Nhill, with his wife and three sons, were spending a holiday at Hall’s Gap, when, owing to the bush fire, they decided to leave on Friday evening. Near the water channel, three miles from the entrance to the Gap, a tyre on the trailer blew out. Mr. Habel and the family got out of the car, and while standing on the roadway the fire swept across the road, badly burning the children and Mrs. Habel.
Assistance was rendered by other motorists, and the injured woman and children were conveyed to Stawell Hospital, where all were found to be badly burned.
One of the victims, the oldest son, Eric, 13 years, died this morning. The mother and other two sons, Rex and Leon, are expected to recover.
Scorched trees line Black’s Spur road between Healesville and Marysville.Credit:The Department of Primary Industries.
The bush fire at Hall’s Gap is under control. The change of wind on Saturday night obviated further immediate danger. On Saturday morning portion of the fluming at the head works of the Stawell water supply was destroyed, cutting off the supply to the town’s reservoir.
The fire from Hall’s Gap on Saturday afternoon reached Fyan’s Creek, and for a time the pines planation was seriously endangered.
The public is generously responding to an appeal for clothes and food for destitute families at Pomonal, where 26 persons are billeted at the two homes not destroyed.
WOOD’S POINT HOLOCAUST
Elderly Woman’s Death
Seymour – Tired and worn out after their fearful experience, 115 survivors from Wood’s Point were brought to Seymour by special relief train from Mansfield at 4.15am yesterday, and were quartered at Seymour military camp.
All survivors told a heart-rending story of a long period of anxiety as four fires swept over, destroying all but nine of the 150 dwellings which comprised the mining township.
A copy of a picture of the Woods Point fire.
The mine tunnels proved a valuable haven when the terrible fire rolled over the town, otherwise the death roll would have been considerable. Miss Nellie O’Keefe, 60 years, whose brother is a partner in O’Keefe and Carey’s store, met a shocking death.
When the fire started to rage over the town, Miss O’Keefe was seen by Mrs. M. Harty and some other women in the swimming pool, running up the street towards her brother’s home, three-quarters of a mile away. Those in the swimming pool, who were standing up to their necks in the water and were compelled by the heat to submerge every few moments, called to Miss O’Keefe, who, however, could not hear through the mighty roaring of the flames. She ran on until her clothing caught alight, and she was seen to fall unconscious on the roadway. Those in the swimming pool, helpless to assist, were horrified to see the blazing top panel of a post and rail fence fall across Miss O’Keefe’s body.
Mine Magazine Explodes
A gripping story of the ordeal undergone by the Wood’s Point people who lost everything in the flames was told by Mr. Charles McKay, driver of the air compressor at the Morning Star mine, and who lives in Clarendon Street, South Melbourne.
The ruins of a home at Big Pat’s Creek.Credit:The Age Archives
Fires had been burning in the heavily timbered forest around the town for a week, he said, but with the scorching hot northerly on Friday, with a shade temperature of 120 degrees, matters became desperate. The mining manager (Mr. P. Clarke) was away in Melbourne seeking medical attention, so Mr. J Mahoney, underground boss, called all the men from the mine at 2pm.
In the meantime all the women and children had been ordered into the tunnels and mining insets in the hillside.
Mr Mahoney then directed a gang of volunteers to shift the mine explosives into the mine, but eventually the task had to be abandoned with 150 cases still left in the magazine.
“It was then a case of every man for himself,” Mr. McKay continued. “Many reached the tunnels but some men had time just to jump into the Goulburn River under the bridge. I ran for an inset and helped along two mates who had collapsed. Four of us stuck to the inset. We were safe, although the heat was almost unbearable. I saw the battery catch alight. Large lumps of red charcoal and large sheets of flame from burning gases floated over the open ground. Then above the terrific roaring of the flames came a tremendous ‘Bang!’. Up went the magazine about 4pm with the 150 cases of explosives. We thought we had born as much heat as human endurance could stand, but it was a Melbourne cool change compared to the blast from the magazine. A hole 25 feet wide by 20 feet deep was left where the magazine had stood. After consuming the hospital, the post office, the hotel and most of the houses, the fire travelled over the forest to the south after four hours of hell.”
Families In Tunnels
The Age, January 16, 1939.Credit:The Age Archives
The many women and children in the tunnels, who were joined later by their menfolk, underwent a terrifying ordeal of mental anxiety, but escaped unscathed. Mrs. H. Hecker, whose husband had a contract carting wood for the mine, was one of a large group seeking refuge in the tunnel at the back of the post office. “It was cool enough in the tunnel,” she said. “But the air was almost suffocating as the fire burnt up the oxygen outside. Now and then we had awful glimpses of the inferno outside as the blanket over the mouth of the tunnel moved with the heavy draught. We had three patients from the hospital in our tunnel. They were three men, including Mr. Dick Dargue, whose care was used to bring them to the tunnel. The car caught alight just after they were helped from it.”
ABERFELDY WIPED OUT?
Wood Point – Two men have been despatched on pack horses to Aberfeldy, 22 miles distant, to investigate a report that the township has been destroyed and that fifteen people are stranded.
News of the disaster was brought to Wood Point by Thos. E. Adamson, 69, who arrived from Kid Jacket in a state of collapse.
Other reports have reached here that either three or five are missing, but these are unconfirmed.
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