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My first bushfire - adventures of a callow youth

Bushfire at night

Photograph by Joyn Evans

The first bushfire I attended was in December,1958. I remember it vividly, to this day.

I was just 17, had recently left school and was starting my first real job. This was in a forestry gang at the little town of Dwellingup, deep in the Western Australian jarrah forest. Luckily, I did have some practical work experience, and was one or two steps up from being a niaive schoolboy, having spent school vacations in shearing sheds or helping with the harvest on farms in the wheatbelt during my teenage years. But this was the first time I entered the (at that time) mysterious world of the forests.

The little sawmill towns and forestry settlements of the forest country were scarcely known to most Western Australians in those days. They were truly a world apart, with their own distinctive preoccupations, language and culture. The concept of timber town tourism and forest recreation was virtually unknown. Western Australians spent their weekends and vacations on the coast and at the beach … the bush meant work, not fun.

I was definitely there to work. This came about because I had been awarded a State government scholarship to study forestry, and one of the scholarship conditions was that I spend all of my university vacations working for the Forests Department, in the bush. No special treatment or training was given to students to whom this applied; on the contrary, the idea was that we start right at the very bottom.

The arrangement commenced even before I started at university. Thus the summer of 1958/9, preceding my first-year studies, was spent as the most junior member of a forestry gang at Dwellingup. Initially I was a novice ... but by the time I left Dwellingup and sat in my first class in my first year of my forestry studies three months later, I had been well and truly initiated. Most of all I had sniffed the smoke and felt the heat of bushfire battle.

Arriving in Dwellingup on my first day, I reported to the district office and was taken in to meet the DFO. This was Bruce Beggs (later to become a hero of the 1961 Dwellingup Fire and later still a wonderful Conservator of Forests). Beggs was a tall, dark-haired and authoritative young man, aged about thirty, and was clearly Lord of All he Surveyed. But he was not one to waste words on a brand-new recruit. He welcomed me briefly, told me I had been assigned to the Wuraming Gang, and told me that he expected me to listen and to learn from the old hands. The district Admin Officer, Alec Edwards, then showed me my camp and briefed me on general arrangements. Alec settled me into one of the tiny one-room huts in the Single Men’s Camp beyond the workshops, and told me to report to The Yard next morning at 7.45, dressed to work in the bush, and with a crib.

The next morning I somehow found my gang and reported for duty. The Wuraming gang was one of five gangs of forest workmen at Dwellingup at that time. They were so-named because until recently they had been located at the tiny mill town and forestry outstation at Wuraming, a siding on the Hotham Valley railway many miles to the east. The sawmill had closed and the town had been abandoned, and now was no more than a clearing in the forest, with a few bits of rusty iron and some straggly fruit trees. The resident forestry gang was transferred in to Dwellingup. But the town’s name lived on, designating the gang of which I was now a member.

As I was soon to discover, summer work for forestry gangs in the jarrah forest in the 1950s consisted largely of firefighting. Apart from narrow strips around the compartments, there had been a policy of no fuel-reduction burning for the previous thirty years, and apart from a few small areas where prescribed burns had recently been introduced, the bush carried huge fuel loads. This meant that small fires quickly became large fires. And since fires were always starting in the forest, thanks to wood-burning steam locomotives, lightning strikes, escapes from farmers burning off, accidents and arsonists, we were kept very busy. I think I must have attended at least twenty fires that summer.

Loco and log rake in the jarrah forest

In between fighting fires, we opened up the vast network of tracks in the forest. This was to facilitate access to other fires. This track network had been largely unmaintained all through the war years and beyond, and a decade later we were still working on the backlog. We often got “bushed” in the network of tracks, and then we would look for a Reference Tree, the Dwellingup 80 map would be spread out on the bonnet of the truck and we would gather round and argue, and finally pin-point our position.

Reference Trees, by the way, were a wonderful forestry innovation. The trees had a map reference carved into a shield-shaped blaze on its trunk, and its position would be marked on the map, so if you stood next to a Reference Tree, and then looked up its coordinates on your map, you knew exactly where you were.

A Reference Tree, showing the map coordinates of its position in the forest

The gang also carried out telephone line maintenance, keeping the SWER (“Single-Wire-Earth-Return”) forestry lines open to the fire lookouts and bush settlements, and reforestation treatment in the areas where the mills had been cutting.

It was all manual work, with axes, crosscut saws, mattocks, shovels, kangaroo jacks and block and tackle. Each gang consisted of 5 or 6 men and was under the control of a tough overseer, often a returned soldier in those days. Our overseer was Bob Mylum, a little man, but one who truly met the description of being “a ball of muscle”. Apart from his skill as a bushman, he had an astonishing repertoire of colourful expressions, jokes and yarns, most of them extremely filthy. Over several weeks of listening to him telling these stories at morning and afternoon smoko, and over our lunchtime crib, I never heard him once repeat himself.

Nearly all the forestry gangs in those days included one or two ‘New Australians’ – migrants who had come out to Australia from Europe in the first wave of immigration after the war. One of the men in our gang was from Latvia and was very well educated. He had formerly been a university professor in physics (or perhaps mathematics), but had been caught up in the war and the occupation of his country by Russia, and the awful post-war aftermath. Eventually he had escaped to Australia. His educational credentials were not recognised by the Australian authorities, so he had taken the only job available, as a firefighter in a forestry gang. I remember him teaching me the proper way to file an axe and then hone the edge with a whetstone. He loved to teach and was starved of opportunities. In his broken English, he gave me a perfect instruction, and I practice his techniques with success to this day. I also remember his sense of humour and cheerful spirit (nothing depressed or daunted him), and his love of the bush and of his day-to-day freedom. This was also a lesson I took with me for the rest of my life.

On my second day on the job we were dispatched to a bushfire in jarrah forest somewhere way east of Dwellingup. The fire had been started by the steam locomotive going out from the Banksiadale Mill for a rake of logs. The smoke had been spotted by the lookout towers, the fire pin-pointed and our instructions relayed from HQ over the radio.

I was lucky to catch the twilight of the steam age in the jarrah forest – elsewhere the first diesel log trucks were taking over, but Banksiadale was a Railways Department mill, and they stuck with steam locomotives and log trains well beyond the point at which it was economic. Banksiadale had a logging railway system extending all the way down to the Chalk Brook area east of Harvey. The mill’s locomotives were wood-burners (unlike the government locomotives of the day, which burnt coal) and they were the perfect mobile incendiary machine, churning out a cocktail of steam and sparks as they puffed through the bush. Apart from the way they started bushfires, I loved them : the distant wail of the steam whistle through the forest, the chug and beat of the engine, the drift of steam and woodsmoke trailing down the line, and the romance of the railway man’s lifestyle.

It was blazing midsummer, that day of my first fire, but a potential bushfire catastrophe was minimised by the fact that the bush bordering the railway line was regularly burned (thanks to sparks from the loco), and carried light fuels. On this occasion, the firefighting was straightforward. Reaching the fire, the gang fell into what I came later to appreciate was a well-practiced routine. While we unloaded our tools and set up the HF radio, the overseer made a reconnaissance. He then reported to HQ, while the rest of us started in with packsprays and heavy forestry rakes, making a firebreak along the edge of the fire. It was a mild fire with flames only about knee-high, but it was going well under the dry, windy conditions, and had already burnt about a hectare when we started work.

A forestry gang at work on a bushfire in the jarrah forest. The leading man has a packspray, and is followed by the men with rakes.

I soon learned the discipline. Each man played a role as we moved steadily along the fire edge, starting at the tail (or downwind end) of the fire, and working towards the headfire. The lead man with the packspray would cool down the flames with water and the rest of us followed behind raking a trail through the dry leaves and litter of twigs and bark. The overseer also carried a rake, and did a lick here and there, but mostly supervised. Every few minutes, he would instruct one of us to drop back to check for flare-ups or sparks across the fireline (known as hopovers). Being the novice, I was also the one detailed to boil the billy and make tea (the gang was spelled for a billy of tea every couple of hours), and to listen out to the radio schedule on the hour.

As an aside, it is interesting to recall the forestry radios of those times. The Forests Department had been experimenting with radio since the mid-1920s, using early military technology, but the first major consignment of radios were ex-tank High Frequency radios purchased from Army Disposals just after World War II. Each district had a base set at Headquarters and several mobiles which were installed in the gang trucks. Although regarded as ‘high tech’ at the time, these mobiles were highly unreliable. Firstly, each time you used the set, it was necessary to stop the truck, get out, run out a long wire aerial and attach it to a tree. You then tuned the set to the exact parameters of the aerial. Both transmitter and receiver had to be separately tuned, and it was a finicky, trying business. On one occasion when I was doing a stint as ‘Radio and Billy Boy’, I contrived to tune the receiver to the ABC instead of District Headquarters, and picked up part of the broadcast of a Test Match from Adelaide. But this was a fluke. Normally I would get the salmon fleet off the south coast. The other great deficiency of the High Frequency radios was that they never worked well during hot weather – the very time that coincided with high fire risk.

Overseer Bob Mylum with his Austin forestry gang truck, operating the FS 6 radio

It is also interesting to recall that there were several different ways of raking a fire trail around a bushfire in the jarrah forest in those days. Some crews preferred one method and others another. There was the One-lick method, the Step-up method and the Two-yard method. I became competent in each. I was also taught to throw the raked material well away from the break, not to leave it in a windrow that would attract sparks.

To return to that first fire. By mid-afternoon we had contained it to about two or three hectares, had a raked trail around the whole perimeter, and extinguished all the running fire.

But just as we stood back to mop the collective brow, there came a great puffing, clanking and whistling around the curve in the adjacent railway line. The locomotive, pulling a full rake of logs, was approaching on its return journey to Banksiadale mill. As it drew near, the driver shut off the steam and the engine coasted past. From the cab, a grubby arm and two fingers appeared, making an unmistakably derisive gesture. The Wuraming gang was not immune to this provocation. It was clear that over the years they had fought many a forest fire started by this very man and his infernal machine. Downing tools and running over to the line, they shouted insults at the engine driver and fireman. The latter simply grinned, and then fired a telling parting shot. As steam was applied and the train gathered speed, he jerked his grimy thumb back down the line and yelled "There's another one back there!"

The Banksiadale loco with log rake: the perfect mobile incendiary machine

There was too, and we had to deal with that one as well and it took until well after midnight to get it under control, and both fires mopped up. Mr. Beggs sent out another gang to help us, but we still had to do the whole job that night, and without any machinery or assistance from a Heavy Duty tanker. Our gang truck was a 3-ton Austin with a small (200-gallon) water tank and pump on the back, but the pump had no motor and we had to take turns operating it by hand. A long stint on the hand pump felt a bit like being in a Roman slave galley. The pumped water had to be carefully marshalled; it was not used to dowse flames, but to extinguish burning logs around the perimeter of the fire after the running fire had been contained. Mopping up also involved gang members walking the edge of the fire with shovels and throwing any smouldering bits and pieces back into burnt ground. The aim was a 20-metre wide strip around the fire that was “black out”.

It was hot, hard, dirty and smoky work. But to me it was a grand adventure. This was made even more memorable when I was assigned to be the swamper for the legendary faller Bob Ashcroft. He had been recruited for the evening to drop three jarrah trees which had fires burning high up in dead wood in the crown. There was a risk that these would throw sparks across our control line when the easterly came in the next morning.

There were no chainsaws in those days, and tree falling was still being done with axe and crosscut saw. My job was to help carry Bob’s tools, and then hold a lamp (for it was dark by now) while he felled the burning trees. He worked single‑handed, chopping out the scarf with his long‑handled Plumb faller's axe, and backing down with a six-foot crosscut saw with a spring attachment on the other end. Bob had been in the Dwellingup pub before being called out. Like many axemen (and shearers) I have known he was one of those amazing Australian bushmen who could work all day, fill up on beer at night, and then do it all again the next day. Swinging his axe in the lamplight that night, the sweat ran from him in rivers. But his axework was a thing of beauty, millimetre-perfect. There was a cleanness of line, a tireless rhythm and an effortless focusing of energy I will never forget.

The two fires were eventually declared safe and we packed up the gear and headed for home. I arrived back at my hut in the Single Men’s Camp in the early hours of the morning. My first fire was behind me.

It was also the first of a great many times over the years ahead when I was to come home from firefighting, my clothes reeking of woodsmoke, with red eyes and a grimy face, and so tired I could hardly stand up. My bushfire education had begun ... and continues to this day.

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Jun 01, 2022

Great yarn Roger


May 31, 2022

Great story and recollection from so far back.

The first fire I attended, I learnt the step-up method. I really got to appreciate the value in hard work with hand tools and knapsack sprayers on the fire flank.

It’s interesting because I must have started my fire fighting career at the end of the hand tool era. In subsequent fires, as I gained experience and was elevated to managing fires, I kept coming across blank faces when I outlined a strategy to attack the fires using knapsacks and hand tools.

Even at pre fire season training drills, people thought I was antiquated when I insisted on drills using raking hoes and perfecting the step-up method.

Over time there…

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