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.