Fire on the Limestone Plains/Appendix B
REPORT ON THE FOREST FIRE IN THE A.C.T. 11–15 January 1939.
The conditions prior to the outbreak contributed to the intensity of the fire. November to mid-January were the driest months on record since 1917. The lack of rain was intensified by the high evaporation (19 ½" were recorded in November and December which is 5" above the average) and the strong desiccating westerly winds. The Cotter weir ceased to overflow on the 17th December and the Condor Creek became a chaplet of water holes. Conditions reached a climax during the fire week when temperatures rose to over 100° daily and a maximum of 107.4° on Wednesday 11th. No relief was experienced at night and 92° was recorded at 2 a.m. on Saturday 16th. Soil temperatures at 2" depth rose to 100° and leaf litter dropped to 2% and 1% at 3 p.m. daily and actually reached oven dry weight on the 16th. The wind rose to a half gale on Friday afternoon and on Saturday to a full gale. Mean velocities per hour of 25 to 30 were recorded at Stromlo between noon and 6 p.m. with maxima of 40 to 45 in every hour. The force of the wind at higher altitudes must have been considerably more for burning snow gum bark and leaves were carried from burning trees at 3500 feet on the mountains and fell burning in the city area.
The dry season resulted in a poor growth of grass so that the number of fires lit in the grazing areas between the Murrumbidgee and city from this cause was small. The nearest fire to the city was at Corkhill's farm which is 15 miles from the nearest burning snow gum.
Those conditions which obtained this season are not abnormal but, on the contrary, are bound to recur at intervals in the future.
Queanbeyan records show that in 67 years such conditions of dryness have occurred 12 times, and evidence disclosed by analyses of the stems of Snow Gums at Bull's Head Mountain establishes the fact that since the seventies of last century serious fires have occurred every 6 to 10 years. The section through the peat at Ginini Flats discloses that before white man's settlement there were no fires in the mountains. There have been fires since 1913 and all of them originated in New South Wales and all were brought under control in the Territory. This is the first to do extensive damage. Origin of Fires:
The fires undoubtedly owe their origin to illegal burning in the crown lands of New South Wales along the Goodridigbee. In mid-December fires were seen burning in the area and nothing was done to put them out; on the contrary, their number increased until the whole valley was obscured by smoke daily. They continued to burn until on Wednesday 11th, fanned by rising westerly wind, they entered the Territory.
There were three more or less definite areas of origin resulting in 3 fires.
Franklin fire. This came from the direction of Blewitt'e property on the Goodridigbee. Two Stick fire. This came from the direction of Wee Jasper. Horseshoe Bend fire. This came from the direction of Narungullen.
Progress of Fires:
Entered the A.C.T. at Mt. Franklin on Wednesday evening to the south of a break that had been burnt along the Franklin road in spring The burning of a trail towards the Cotter was started by a gang working from 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, the object being to confine the fire to the south of Mt. Franklin; this was successful and the gang was relieved at noon on Friday. The wind freshened by 4 p.m. and carried the fire over the trail. The men had, in the end, to be withdrawn exhausted and they reached Canberra at 2 a.m. on Saturday. The fire burnt fiercely and the wind carried burning debris over 7 miles of unburnt forest and set country alight east of the Tidbinbilla Range. This new fire in turn lit up fresh fires miles in advance and so it leapt on from Ginini on the New South Waled Border to Tidbinbilla, to Boroomba, to Castle Hill, to Rob Roy and finally to Royalla: twenty miles in 4 giant leaps. Intermediate fires sprang up and joined the larger ones till they all merged into 8 practically continuous fire 20 miles deep and 6 miles wide. This fire came under control at on Sunday 15th and apart from a small break-away on Sunday afternoon gave no further trouble.
Two Sticks Fire.
The fire in New South Wales had been under observation for several days and was reported to be at a safe distance on Thursday and again On Friday morning. The strong winds that sprang up on Friday afternoon carried the fire into the Territory by 7.30 p.m. The break from Two Sticks to the Franklin Road burnt in the spring was not crossed until the gang were forced to retire on Saturday at noon owing to fires starting up behind them from embers carried by the wind. The Forester writing of this point says: "On that appalling day of record high temperatures, record drought and an all day gale reaching 45 m.p.h., a perfectly clean break of 5 miles would not have been effective". The outflanked men were withdrawn from the Two Sticks front at 1.30 p.m. on Saturday 14th after a most strenuous and courageous fight to try and save as much of the pine plantations in the Uriarra area as possible. Fires broke out in the grass under the pines and quickly formed crown fires in widely separated blocks of the plantation. The efforts of the men were concentrated on saving the area block by block and rounding up the fire, which was effected by midnight on Saturday 14th. In all 39400 acres of plantation were destroyed, valued at £60,000.
A contributory cause of the loss of the plantations was the high grass under the pines, and burning embers falling in the tinder-dry grass lit up fires immediately. The contrast between the ungrazed area in the catchment and the grazed area outside it was striking. Had the area outside the catchment, near Uriarra, been ungrazed, it would have been practically impossible to save the buildings of the Forest Station which, thanks to the absence of grass, were successfully protected, it must be recorded that the strongest representations were made both by the Chief Lands Officer and the Inspector-General of Forests to the Health Department to permit grazing in these plantations but without success. That Department considered that the purity of the water supply of Canberra would be endangered by the presence of sheep in the catchment area. The evidence of the comparative immunity of grazed plantations is confirmed in several places, e.g. The Western Yellow River plantation above the camp at the Cotter; lighted brands fell continuously into this area on Saturday. Again, there is Stromlo, where had there been a body of ungrazed grass the fire hazard from flying embers would have been frightfully serious.
The Narungullen fire:
This fire also did not become dangerous till the wind freshened to half a gale on Friday afternoon when it advanced rapidly and joined forces with the Two Stick fire to make a front of over 15 miles. The northern end of it burnt through the open country and reached the Murrumbidgee at Horseshoe Bend and sparks crossed and lit up a fire at Beduluck where some 200-300 acres of grass were destroyed.
Several small fires broke out on the east side of the Murrumbidgee lit from flying embers from the Two Sticks-Narungullen fire. While a great deal of publicity was given to these grass fires, particularly in the Hall District, a survey of the position discloses that the fire was checked at the river, apart from the one small break away at Buduluck. Organisation:
The organisation, which is set out in appendix and which has been tested over a long period of years, has on the evidence, proved effective. It was interfered with by unauthorised but well intentioned publicity of people not fully informed of the progress of the fire. As a result volunteers under no leadership reached fire areas already well supplied with fighters and more important outbreaks were under-manned. Numerous calls were made for volunteers in the Hall District when danger was small, while the Tidbinbilla-Boroomba-Tharwa area was insufficiently manned.
Quoting from the Assistant Forester's report: Under weather conditions such as were experienced on January 14th an organisation and equipment necessary to cope with the fires lit up by sparks from the main fire would need a capital outlay and administrative expenditure quite out of keeping with the forestry enterprise. It is doubtful also whether even a large organisation which may only be called on once in 12 years or more could handle a similar fire more effectively than was done this time. The control of such fires must necessarily depend upon the prevention of outbreaks in bad weather or indeed, at all times during summer."
The organisation worked under a handicap through the fire occurring at weekends when no gangers were available for service with their own gangs (see plan of organisation). Notwithstanding this, improvised arrangements which had to be made were effective so that the organisation functioned efficiently.
As Mr. Cole writes in his report: given the dreadful circumstances it is creditable that no one was burnt and no buildings lost and it reflects great credit on the cool headedness of those in immediate charge of operations. It must be added that very little stock was lost and apart from the Tidbinbilla-Boroomba area, only 1200 acres of grass were destroyed east of the Murrumbidgee while all lease fencing destroyed can be replaced for £300.
Transport is a key-brand of this organisation and this worked very smoothly. Unfortunately, owing to the same cause, unauthorised publicity volunteers, private vehicles were used when the Transport Branch's lorries were not all out.
All arrangements with bakers and storekeepers were made on Friday but the unprecedented number of men to be fed, coupled with the fact that Canberra supplies had already been taxed by an influx of 800 delegates to the Science Congress, and to the further difficulty that it was a weekend made it difficult to keep food up to the parties. Some had to wait longer than the organisation liked. Nowhere did food fail to arrive to men sent out from the Fire Headquarters at Acton but volunteers who had gone out in response to unauthorised calls added greatly to the number of men to feed and so proved embarrassing. The storekeepers and bakers and business people generally co-operated to the full with the organization of this service. Thanks are due to private persons also who supplemented the rations with fresh meat and bread and groceries.
From early on Friday evening till Saturday night the Police Department worked in harmony with the Central Fire Organisation and rendered valuable service in the protection of property.
The brigade is organised for fire control where water is available in sufficient quantities and was under a disability in areas outside the city. It was, however, responsible for saving Mr. Hyles homestead at Uriarra and the engine was later on Saturday night stationed at the Cotter to protect the buildings there which were threatened by the fire on Mt. Macdonald. Conclusion:
A careful study of the reports of the various branches of the service which co-operated in controlling the fire shows that everything possible was done, first to prevent the entry of fires into the Territory, then to control them, then to save as much of the plantations, grass lands and property as possible.
Under the weather conditions of Friday and Saturday, the 13th and 14th of January, the fight was lost when the fires reached the Territorial boundary and an army of men could not have prevented the lighting up of the scattered fires nor once lit could they have suppressed them.
An extension of the boundary of the Territory to include a sufficient area of crown lend in New South Wales and the creation of means of access and effective fire control on the crest and on the flank of the mountain falling to the Goodridigbee are the only means to prevent a recurrence of the disaster. No internal organisation, however large and efficient, in Canberra could stop a similar fire. Prevention at the source, not cure, is the only possible solution.
L. D. Pryor