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Memories of 1969: The Lara and Little River fires

  | Terry Hedt and Shaunnagh O'Loughlin Views: 1963

Tuesday 8 January 2019 marked the 50th anniversary of the devastating bushfires of 1969, fires that impacted a number of areas across the state - none more so than Lara and Little River.

Memories of 1969: The Lara and Little River fires

Terry Hedt AFSM is the captain of Little River Fire Brigade. On that day 50 years ago, he was 27, a member of his brigade for three years and fighting the fires in Lara and Little River.   

He recounts his experience on that day. 

At about 7am on the morning of 8 January 1969, a strong northerly wind came up and our fire station siren went off. A fire from the previous day caused by sparks blown from burning trees had ignited grass outside the containment line. We jumped on the truck and headed off.

Upon arrival we came face to face with fast running grass fire which we just could not contain.  I remember a farmer lost a large water tank off the back of his private truck in the panic and confusion. It was unlike anything we’d ever faced.

We needed to get ahead of the fire front by travelling towards Lara but to do so we had to extinguish a wooden bridge that crossed Sandy Creek at Wooloomanata Station. I manned the hose line from the tanker desperately trying to quell the flames before the bridge burnt down.

Apart from the heat and smoke, we had to contend with the severe dust storm blown up by the strong winds. I covered my eyes with one hand and peeked between a couple of fingers every now and then to see where I was spraying the water. It was a tough few minutes but we put the fire out enough to drive over the bridge to proceed to Lara.

As we exited the bridge onto Forest Road in North Lara, the fire hit the road igniting a house 200 metres ahead of us. Our driver pulled up due to the smoke and flames and I sheltered behind the 400 gallon tank on the back of the tanker to protect myself from the radiant heat and flames.

Soon we were able to proceed towards the Lara township, stopping at a house in Forest Road to save what belongings we could for the residents. We continued to protect homes to the south of the Lara Fire Station saving many houses and outbuildings as we continued to Lara.

At this time the wind changed from a Northerly to South Westerly and we were sent back towards Little River with the fire ahead of us.

We stopped between two farm houses in You Yang’s Road, Little River. The home on the south side was well alight, including a shearing shed I had worked in previously. There was nothing we could do. The farmer protecting his house on the north side said he was OK. He had saved his property.   

Upon arriving at Little River, we methodically checked all the buildings. Churches and homes there had all been spared by the flames. Only my neighbour’s cypress hedge was burning and we helped extinguish it with his help.

We then proceeded towards Avalon. All the power lines and fences were burned down but surprisingly no homes were lost. Our surprise turned to sadness as we made our way down the Princes Highway, coming upon the abandoned burnt out cars of the day’s travellers. We learned later that 17 people had died trying to flee the firestorm on foot as the fire crossed the road. 

We spent the rest of the day checking properties and extinguishing anything still burning. The landscape was littered with power poles and fences that had been flattened by the flames. The ground was blackened as far as our eyes could see.

Later in the day we arrived back at the Little River fire station. We were met by a large tray truck owned and driven by Corio BP fuel agent Mr Bob Bolton. It was loaded with cold beer in cans called Tubes – big ones, about one litre in size. Up until this time I had never tasted beer. Of course I had a can. It was my first ever beer and it was three days before my 27th birthday.  

I now own the property where the Lara fire started. I have made a large commemorative marker stone that will remain on my property so future generations can remember this tragic event which had such a big impact on the Lara and Little River areas. 

This commemorative marker was unveiled on Sunday 6 January in recognition of the 50th anniversary of this tragic day

Two busloads of about 120 people visited the memorial after the services, retracing the journey of the Little River fire truck I was on as it made its way into Lara township.

It was very rewarding to have so many people attend the site and acknowledge the effort put in by Lara and Little River brigade members to plan the memorial in honour of the families who tragically lost their lives on 8 January 1969.

Photos of the Lara and Little River memorial service for the 1969 fires by Blair Dellemijn, Uniform Photography

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