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Western Districts fires 40 year anniversary
The Sun News-Pictorial emblazoned their cover with a photo of devastation in the township of Streatham and called 12 February 1977 “the day the west caught fire”.
Five men were killed and 17 people injured as 100 kilometre-an-hour winds drove 69 fires statewide, 11 of them major blazes in the Western District. A total of 81 houses were destroyed and 130,000 hectares of grazing land burnt out. A third of Victoria’s plantations were also destroyed along with tens of thousands of kilometres of fencing, 1000 cattle and 320,000 sheep.
While Forest Commission Chair Dr Frank Moulds was devastated by the loss of 1821 hectares of prime timber plantations, he praised the “magnificent courage” shown by firefighters.
“The cooperation from the Country Fire Authority was first rate,” he said.
An example of the random impact of the fires was recorded in the newspaper with a Cressy resident who lost his home saying, “The dunny’s the only thing still standing and, you wouldn’t believe it, the paper is still on the roll…”
More than half the buildings in the worst-hit towns of Cressy and Streatham were damaged or destroyed. In Cressy this included 40 houses while Streatham lost 11 houses, four shops, two garages, a post office and eight farmhouses. The 101-year-old Streatham Presbyterian church was reduced to a bluestone shell.
Streatham Fire Brigade member Greg Brown still has vivid memories of the day he fought the fires and was injured.
“I lived a mile out of town and helped my dad on the farm because he was in his 70s,” said Greg.
“About 1pm, we heard about a fire 10 miles away. I went to the fire shed and jumped on the truck and we went to Nerrin Nerrin.
“It was horrendous! You couldn’t breathe. We were always mindful and were wearing woollen jumpers, long pants and boots, but I got burnt on the hands, arm and back within the first half hour.
“I got out to open a gate and was just collapsing and a woman took me off the truck. Another local drove me home to the farm and I was just in time to see fire approaching.
“Mum and Dad were in the house with everything closed up and knew nothing of the fire. Dad jumped on the tractor to save the stock. He was reported missing for a while but he managed to save all the cattle. He opened the gates and they ran down to the creek.
“My wife drove me to hospital in Skipton and people were coming in from all over with burns.
“It unnerved me for a little while. Fire was chasing you and it was very frightening but it’s just part of the area.
“You always learn something and for me it was to try to remember your direction and where any clear ground is so you can get out.
“A lot of very interesting stories came out. People jumped in the creek, lay on roads and hid under the bridge.”
Greg’s parents lost their home in the fire.
“It was very hard on the old people,” he said. “Everything they’d worked for was gone.”
John Simpson was elected Streatham Fire Brigade captain at the elections following the fires and remained in the position for 10 years. He recalled a fire that “you couldn’t do a thing with; you could only mop up afterwards.
“We got called into Streatham to protect people in the memorial hall. I was in our old Bedford truck going flat scrap at 50 kilometres an hour and the fire zoomed past me. I saw a house explode and a roof lift off.
“I said, ‘There’s not one thing on earth we can do here,’ so I went home. It burnt two-thirds of my place but I couldn’t see it; I could only hear it.
The service of volunteer firefighters was praised by CFA Chair Brigadeer R.T. Eason.
“We showed we can employ 100 vehicles and 8000 men in a planned, sustained and successful attack and stop 11 major fires in one day – a task that was always considered impossible,” he said.
Regional Officer Ian Jenkins was the weekend’s duty office.
“When the south-easterly change came in mid-afternoon, the wind was just as strong as the northerlies,” he said. “The flanks became the fronts and fires that had been burning south on a one-kilometre front turned and suddenly had fronts up to 30 kilometres.”
11 major fires, 12 February 1977
- Strathmore, 10,125 ha
- Streatham, 20,250 ha
- Waubra, 810 ha
- Creswick, 12,150 ha
- Mingay, 4050 ha
- Cressy/Rokewood, 52,650 ha
- Little River, 2100 ha
- Beeac, 4050 ha
- Pura Pura, 28,350 ha
- Penshurst, 2025 ha
- North Byaduk, 1650 ha