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The day disaster struck Longwood in 1965
In this personal account, Max Cox says the morning of 17 January, 1965 and the days that followed will remain etched in his mind forever.
By Max Cox, retired Group Officer
Article originally published in Euroa Gazette
People on the land usually know what to expect on these horrific days – temperature build-up in the preceding days, relative humidity lessening and strengthening northerly winds as well as grass and forests with total curing of vegetation – a recipe for disaster.
17 January was to be our day. Up early, too hot to sleep and a look outside, not good, with the wind already more than a breeze and that gut feeling of a bad day ahead. Hosed down the concrete around and watered plants and lawn around the house.
Not a lot done about fire prevention in those days – no mowing or burning around the house or buildings, only what the sheep and cattle had grazed and that was it.
As I will write about later, this was a total turn around for Longwood brigade as well as most brigades in our region. Thinking changed.
At 11.40am, the siren sounded so I headed to the old fire shed situated on the Red Hill in Longwood. We could see out to the north from the hill a huge column of black-grey smoke rising.
Made radio contact with Euroa Group HQ and were told to stand by until someone investigated the smoke. Blind Freddy could have seen that it was the start of a disaster. However, we had to obey orders.
The captain at the time, Fred Tubb, came running up wanting to know why we were still sitting there and told us to get going and forget the instructions we had been given.
I think their decision to hold us back was regretted later.
In those days, we were equipped with one Austin tanker with a BSA motor driving a pump on the back. One could have piddled more than that pump could squirt. Anyone that has had experience with one of those motors will know what I am talking about. So unreliable and, once hot, would take forever to start.
We had a HF radio which was great during the day but as the sun went down so did the radio reception until dark, then nothing.
The brigade was equipped with a tow along quick fill, a Ford 10 motor and large pump that was capable of filling two fire trucks together. Apparently these pumps were used during the London bombings during World War Two.
Jim Grant, Ray Oxenbury, Bernie Houston and myself as driver, headed for the smoke and Bob Cook’s property on the Euroa-Pranjip Road and were directed in to save the Cook’s house which we did – how I don’t know, as I couldn’t see past the bonnet of the truck.
Grass burning around the sheds and so we managed to save them too only to discover after the smoke cleared there were 10 44-gallon drums of petrol that had the grass around them burnt and one half full with the bung removed – so lucky.
We left the Cook’s house and were directed to make a flank attack but, with the intense heat and speed of the wind, that was a lost cause. We couldn’t get within many metres of the fire edge.
We could see by now Longwood was well in line of the fire so headed back there along the Longwood-Pranjip road. To watch the fire behaviour from a distance was nothing short of amazing.
There were huge spirals of flame going 20-30 feet in the air and travelling in some cases ahead of the main front and lighting up the grass. Nothing was going to stop this monster. Given the same conditions today, with all our state-of-the-art appliances, the results would have been the same.
We had this false thought that the railway line would halt the fire but this wasn’t even a hiccough and nor was the Hume Highway.
When we arrived back at Longwood we each went our own ways to save our houses and livestock and the firetruck was taken over by others. I arrived home to find my mother had the sheep rounded up and heading for the highway hoping to get them towards the Longwood service station and, with the help of a couple of locals, she achieved that goal. She missed a mob of 180 young ewes which perished. Still, a marathon effort on her part.
I had picked up a mate in Longwood on the way home so we decided to drive to our Tenerife property where there were 500 wethers. At Christmas we had a lightning strike in that paddock and burnt a 15-acre patch so we headed the sheep on to the black spot and Brian remained there with his dog on the burnt area and saved every sheep.
Another mate stayed with me and we decided to head back to our house at Longwood where Coral and the two boys were on their own, but by this time the fire had crossed the highway and so in blind panic I kept driving only guided by the white line with my head out the window and hoping like hell there were no other vehicles doing the same as me.
Ken was laying in the back of the ute and when we arrived home he had no hair on his arms and very little on his head and a very red face.
We got to the house just before it was threatened, time to fill the bath, wet some blankets and towels and close all doors and windows. The old house was around 120 years old so keeping the smoke out was impossible.
The noise was unbelievable. It was like standing under a railway bridge with a train passing over it.
Prior to going inside we had loaded the kids into the ute with the intention of driving into Longwood. About to set off, Puddy Lane exploded into flame.
It was heavily timbered at the time, so we abandoned that idea and decided to walk through the swamp to the town. But that idea also had to be abandoned. Had we attempted to leave, I would not be writing this story now.
In my years with the CFA, I have always believed after that experience that the safest place to be is your home and have tried to get the message across to people I have talked to. We would not have had a house had we left.
After the front had passed we were able to save the house, woolshed and workshop with the three of us with buckets of water putting out verandah posts and stumps on the sheds, but two haysheds were lost. Later, I went over to see what damage the town had suffered and met Fred Tubb who told me seven of the Oxenbury family had perished. They were our neighbours and good friends.
This tragedy has left a scar in the minds of all people involved that day, something that still remains with us today.
A few years ago a monument to those people that perished was unveiled in the ‘Pub Paddock’ near the fire shed.
The town had survived remarkably well with only one house damaged. Someone was on our side, as a storm cloud dropped a few points of rain just north of the town just before the fire hit enabling the tankers to save what could have been a disaster for Longwood.
Trucks came from all over Victoria to help for days after, remaining with the mammoth job of blacking out. People were so generous with their time and Rotary, Apex and Lions from Euroa helped clean up and with the enormous job of getting fencing up and going.
There were enormous donations of fodder coming in both by road and rail from all over Victoria. The hay and fencing jobs were so unpleasant in the heat, the hardness of the ground and I think every fly in Australia visited us. Flies seem to be attracted to burnt out areas possibly because of the never-ending stench of decomposing stock.
The CRB, as they were called then, now VicRoads, had the uneviable job of burying dead stock. The ground so hard and the near-impossible job of pushing decomposing carcasses along with a bulldozer or front-end loader was not a pretty sight.
I saw mobs of up to 1,300 sheep in one group, another mob of 70 or so cows in another.
Then there were all the stragglers, scattered, which had to be collected mostly with utes and picked up by hand.
We had no telephones or electricity for many days and generators were nearly unheard of back then so living was very ordinary. People were becoming very agitated – no light at the end of the tunnel and nobody had even heard of counselling in those days. But we got through it, I think, by just talking it over with friends and neighbours.
Certainly seeing all these people arriving to help lifted our spirits. Sheep and cattle that survived were trucked all over Victoria on agistment. Some was free and most was a reduced rate which was appreciated. Our stock finished at Romsey, Miepopll and Creightons Creek, scattered but at least alive and safe.
This event has made Longwood so very fire conscious and created a situation where everybody helps with whatever is taking place, right up to today, and we have achieved many great things to make Longwood a better place to live.