Fire on the Limestone Plains/Appendix C
BUSH FIRE REPORT January 1939
The bush fires which reached their climax in the Australian Capital Territory on Saturday 14th January, 1939, had two areas of origin about 25 miles apart, both, as is the case of all our bad fires, originating in neighbouring N.S.W. country and both without any doubt, caused by illegal burning by N.S.W. graziers.
The first to enter out Territory had its origin near Blewitt's on the Goodradigbee River on the afternoon of Wednesday January 11th, and after racing up the face of the mountain, entered our Territory about Mt. Franklin and south of the end of the trail burnt by us along the Frankin Road in the Spring. This fire we shall refer to as the Franklin Fire.
The second and more disastrous fire had its origin from at least two fires - one starting from near Wee Jasper before January 6th and the other from near Waterfall Creek before January 9th. The Wee Jasper and Waterfall Creek fires joined on Friday 13th and entered our Territory at Two Sticks, so this fire will be referred to as the Two Sticks Fire.
Dealing first with the Franklin Fire Forestry Bureau employees Newlyn and Boyd, who were camped near Mt. Franklin and Ranger D. Maxwell, attempted to hold this fire during the night of Wednesday the 11th, and Boyd drove down to the Pabral Camp 'phone to acquaint Forest Overseer Bradley with the position.
Bradley left for the fire at 2 a.m. on Thursday the 12th with a party of men from Uriarra Forest with the intention of trailing the fire from Mt. Franklin to the Cotter River via Ginini Creek to prevent the fire from traveling north down the Cotter Valley or from crossing the Cotter.
After starting his men on the trail, Bradley returned to Uriarra and on his way home inspected the Two Sticks fire from a lookout on Brindabella Mountain at 6 a.m. on Thursday the 12th. This fire he reported as being quiet and many miles from the Territory boundary.
Bradley returned to the Franklin fire about noon on Thursday the 12th with a truck-load of fresh men from Canberra, and the driver of this truck returned to Uriarra about 9.30 p.m. on Thursday 12th with the original men, and with a report from Bradley that good progress was being made with the trail, that rations and horse feed would be required, but that no more men need be sent.
About 4 p.m. on Friday the 13th, however, strong winds arose, which carried the fire over the trail and Bradley' men, being too exhausted to commence a fresh trail, they were withdrawn reaching Canberra about 2 a.m. on Saturday the 14th.
By this time the Two Sticks fire which had been under observation for some days and had been fairly quiet, had raced towards the Territory on Friday afternoon and was absorbing practically all our attention, and the Franklin fire was left in charge of a small party.
Actually this fire would have done very little further damage had it not been carried by Saturday's gales 7 miles over country which had been burnt last year and lit up the Tidbinbilla country about 1.30 p.m. on Saturday the 14th.
To briefly complete the story of the Franklin Fire before turning to the more serious Two Sticks Fire, flying embers from the Ginini country carried 7 miles over clean country and set alight to the country east of the Tidbinbilla Range this new fire in turn set up new fires miles in advance and so on from Ginini to Tidbinbilla to Booroomba to Castle Hill to Rob Roy and Royalla - a matter of twenty miles in probably 4 leaps.
In addition to these 4 new fires, there were numerous intermediate fires set up by smaller leaps - Assistant Forester Pryor has identified ten separate starting points of fires in this locality and there were certainly many more than this, ultimately owing to the extraordinary conditions of the day and the utter impossibility of handling them, practically all these several fires merged into one more or less continuous fire from the Goodradigbee River to Tharwa, a matter of 20 miles in depth by 6 miles in width. This fire was brought under control by 3a.m. on Sunday the 15th and apart from a small break-away on Sunday afternoon has given no further trouble.
In country which had been burnt a year or two previously, it was possible to put up a fight, but in virgin bush no efforts of man were of any avail.
Old inhabitants state that no previous fire can be recalled, which burnt with such uncontrollable ferocity as this one, and virgin bush was burnt as clean as pine plantations.
Now reverting to the more serious fire in the northern end of the Territory as already indicated, these had at least two points of origin - near Waterfall Creek and near Wee Jasper. Under the influence of the strong winds on Friday afternoon, these travelled many miles, probably joining to make one fire with a front of 10 to 15 miles before first entering our Territory at Two Sticks about 7 p.m. on Friday the 13th.
The forecast for Saturday being so alarming, Forestry employees at Uriarra had been retained on the job and these were the first men sent out about 8.30 p.m. on Friday the 13th to deal with the first fire started near Mr. Hyles' Uriarra Station from a flying ember from Two Sticks.
A trail had been burnt from Two Sticks to Franklin a distance of 20 miles in the spring to protect our country from N.S.W. fires approaching from this quarter, and this would have been effective in the case of any ordinary fire - indeed up to the time firefighters were forced to retire owing to numerous fires being lit behind them by flying embers, the face of the fire had not passed this trail, but on this appalling day of record high temperature following 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 men on the Two Sticks front held this fire through Friday night and up till about 1.30 p.m. on Saturday the 14th when they were forced to withdraw through being outflanked by fires starting up to the rear and it is desired to record the stout fight put up by these men and to repeat the claim that the fire would have been bought under control along all this front had the conditions not been so terribly abnormal.
Once fires made their appearance in various and widely separate points in the pine plantations, repeated efforts were made to save the plantations block by block and these efforts were continued until the fire was finally rounded up by midnight Saturday the 14th, one small break-away occurred on Sunday the 15th which destroyed one compartment of pines. In all 3,500 acres of plantation was destroyed, valued at &60,000. In 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 the operations.
Whilst the pine plantations were being set ablaze in numerous places, grass country across the Murrumbidgee was also being set alight from flying embers from Two Sticks. It will never be known just how many such fires there were - Mr. Pyror has verified 26 separate fires in the plantations and the grass country across the Murrumbidgee possibly there were as many more.
It was necessary to dispatch men to at least 10 separate grass fires spread over about 100 square miles of country and it is considered creditable that all these grass fires were quickly brought under control without loss of homesteads, considering the big job on hand in the mountains.
It should be recorded that no fire occurred in any plantation which has been grazed by sheep. It is not claimed that no plantations would have been lost If grazing bad been generally practised, but it is definitely claimed that bad the Cotter Catchment plantations been grazed as has been requested time and time again (a) the plantations would have been ignited in fewer places (b) it would have been possible to go into the plantations to fight the outbreaks, and (c) the damage resulting would have been less severe.
The danger of just such a holocaust has been pointed out previously, as a result of the refusal of the Health Department to allow grazing in the Catchment Area plantations, and it is to be hoped that this ban will now be lifted.
The second lesson to be learnt from this disaster is the necessity of acquiring a wide strip of New South Wales country adjoining our northern and western boundaries, where systematic controlled burning can be carried out by our own people, thus pushing back the menace of our New South Wales grazier neighbours a further 5 miles or more.