Rising to the occasion - a Cyclone Alby story
The path and daily locations of the eye of Cyclone Alby, showing dramatically how the storm accelerated when approaching the south-west of Western Australia.
The April 1978 Cyclone Alby storm and bushfire crisis was one of the most fearsome experiences of my life – and of the lives of the great many Western Australians who lived through it. In Alby’s wake stories of tragedy, terror and courage abounded. I would like to tell one of those stories today.
By way of background, Alby was a Category 5 cyclone, which means it was at the top of the scale of ferocity. It mooched around off the Pilbara coast for a week or two, and then suddenly and unexpectedly zoomed south. It struck the south-west at the worst possible time. It was the end of a long, dry summer, but late enough for the burning season to have opened, and there was a lot of fire in the landscape. Controlled fire that is (or was). Farmers had lit clearing fires on their farms; there were waste-disposal fires at sawmills and Shire rubbish dumps, plantation growers were preparing sites for winter tree planting, and the forestry autumn burning program was underway.
There was no warning. The storm seemed to strike from nowhere, and the sudden onset of dry cyclonic winds activated every spark into a searing bushfire … and at the same time, the winds started a rash of new fires by bringing down live electric power lines. All of a sudden, in a matter of a mere hour or so, every road was blocked and the entire electrical and telephonic system in the region was shut down. There was gridlock, chaos and fire on all fronts.
It was fearsome, not just the fires and flying debris but the immense, banshee screaming of the Force-10 winds. A great many people were soon in a very bad way. Several were killed and many injured.
Newspaper report two days later
I was lucky. I was not completely out of harm’s way although to some degree I was physically threatened. The tall pine trees overtopping the forestry HQ at Manjimup, where I was located for the duration of the storm, were being bent almost double by the wind. I was inside, under a stout roof, and surrounded by my experienced and brave colleagues, but very worried about what was going on outside, and especially concerned over the threat to the residents of Manjimup, including my family.
But at least I was not out on the road somewhere dodging falling trees and power lines, and I was not a firefighter … well, not in the sense of being in the bush or on a farm, attempting to control a bushfire with a 150 km per hour wind up it. My position was senior officer, the Regional Incident Controller. I might have had a roof over my head, and power and light from an emergency generator, but I was also responsible for trying to coordinate the response to the disaster unfolding around us, and for ensuring the safety of colleagues and communities across the entire karri forest region. In short, I was at the sharp end.
As for the firefighting, I quickly realised that this was impossible. The fires were too numerous and too fierce, and our firefighters were either completely overwhelmed or gridlocked. Anyway, most of the fires were un-reachable. Roads everywhere had become impassable due to falling trees, burning debris and fallen power lines. Firefighters who had been dispatched in response to the first fire reports were now trapped in their vehicles, and could neither reach the fires nor return home. Our strategy became a simple one: survival. Firefighters were instructed to find a safe spot, the middle of a paddock, if possible, to stay alive, and be ready to start work on the fires the next day when (we hoped) the storm had passed.
Of immediate concern was the town of Manjimup. There was a big fire coming down from the north, and we could see its pulsating glow. The police were pushing for a massive evacuation, but I pushed back, and won the day. Evacuating townsfolk onto gridlocked roads swept by fire would have been suicidal. Instead, we started a door-to-door around the town, advising people to make themselves secure in their home, or move to the local football grounds and shelter in their cars.
Horror stories began to come in. Deaths and injuries. Houses, buildings, farms, orchards, forests, plantations, all taking a terrible battering. Central Bunbury was flooded with sea water and the famous Busselton Jetty was torn asunder. Thousands of trees, perhaps a hundred thousand, were uprooted or snapped off. Later we heard of the deaths of hundreds of sheep, cattle and horses, many of which were caught in sweeping grass fires, were injured, and then had to be shot.
In the wake of Cyclone Alby.
There was an enormous toll of beautiful trees, especially in open farm paddocks.
But as so often happens in times of crisis, the people in the thick of it rose to the occasion. There were countless acts of heroism and selflessness, and a wonderful spirit of collaboration arose amongst those threatened by the common enemy.
The storm passed, as storms do, people picked up the pieces and life returned to normal. But Cyclone Alby was never forgotten, not by those who were up to their ears in it.
Thinking about this, forty-odd years down the track, I set out to collect memories from Cyclone Alby survivors. I managed to get nearly 100 stories and these were eventually published. Some of the best of them, I found, were written by women, displaying (as women so often do) wonderful courage and resilience in the face of danger.
My favourite story was written by Mavis Vince. In 1978 Mavis was a nurse, a mother and a “forestry wife” in the little forestry and timber town of Nannup. During the height of the storm, she and Isobel Sparrow (the hospital cook and also a forestry wife) had an adventure they would remember vividly for the rest of their lives. It is the sort of story, demonstrating the sort of courage, that in wartime would have earned them decorations for bravery. It is worth re-telling, in full.
Sister Vince, outside the Nannup Hospital in 1978
Here is Mavis Vince's story:
In 1978 I was living in Nannup where my husband Frank was a forestry officer. I was a Registered Nurse, and worked part-time as the Sister at the Nannup Hospital.
My story concerns the mercy dash in an ambulance from Nannup Hospital to Bridgetown Hospital, during the height of Cyclone Alby, a distance of nearly 50 km and nearly all of it through thick forest. It began in the late afternoon. Greg Black had been up on his roof fixing loose iron when he was blown off by the storm, and landed heavily. He was badly hurt, with serious internal injuries.
I was off-duty and home at the time. The cyclone had been working its way, and gaining speed, down the coast throughout the afternoon. Towns along the way had received little warning of what was to come, and Nannup was no different. We received a surprising and severe battering.
A call came through from the hospital and I learned that I was to accompany the injured man in the ambulance to Bridgetown. Nannup was only a C Class hospital and had no doctor, so there was a choice of taking him to Busselton or Bridgetown. Either way it would be through many miles of thick forest. I am not sure why, but the decision was made to go to Bridgetown which was closer, and we had already heard that the road to Busselton was unsafe. Little did we know, but the road to Bridgetown was probably less safe than the road to Busselton.
I wasn't too happy about leaving home, as my five children (aged from 8 to 16) were still not back from school, and when they arrived, they would be by themselves. But it was an emergency and no time to organise anything.
I then discovered that none of our normal volunteer ambulance drivers was available. They were all out fighting fires. The hospital cook Isobel Sparrow, volunteered to drive, even though she had never driven an ambulance before.
One good thing was that just as we set off, we were told that my husband Frank had organised some forestry men to join up with us out on the road, and they would accompany us to Bridgetown to see us safely through.
It was still daylight when we left Nannup, but completely dark about 15 minutes later when we reached the forest east of town. Isobel was driving cautiously. I was in the back sitting beside the injured man. Before leaving the hospital, I had been given a dose of Pethidine to administer along the way if needed.
It was slow going, because there were many branches, debris and small trees on the road. As we came to each blockage, Isobel and I would climb out and drag them off and then climb back in and get going again. Thank goodness the forestry crew arrived just before we reached the karri forest, and they went ahead of us clearing a path. They were Alan Scott, Bill Archibald, and Ron Green. It was terribly hard work, as some of the trees were huge and could not be shifted. They had to cut a path around them. The gale was at full pelt and more stuff was coming down all the time.
Stopping at one point, we were held up for some time as the crew was working on a giant karri tree. I was startled by a tap on the window. It was my husband, Frank. He had come out to see if we were OK and that we had caught up with the forestry crew. It was pitch dark by then, and the wind was howling in the trees. Seeing that we were OK so far, and in the hands of the forestry crew, he returned to Nannup where he was needed for the firefighting.
The patient had been unconscious up until then. I had him on oxygen. But he suddenly woke up and was in great pain. I gave him the shot of Pethidine. Before he went out to it again, he looked at me and said "You look stiff with fright". Little wonder.
Just then we "heard", or somehow sensed, a huge tree coming down on us. I was quite sure we were gone. But luckily the main trunk crashed across the road just behind us and all we got were the smaller limbs and branches. We breathed again.
We then had a stroke of bad luck. The forestry truck broke down, something to do with the brakes, and could not be driven. So, the crew started off on foot, walking with their chainsaws and gear from one fallen tree to the next as we followed slowly behind. But our luck changed when the crew came across an abandoned Nannup Shire station wagon, with the keys in the ignition. They commandeered that and we were on our way again.
Getting closer to Bridgetown we could see a throbbing red glow in the sky ahead. This was the fire that had burnt through David Reid's farm and then crossed the Nannup-Bridgetown road. The head fire had passed, but we were now driving through the after-burn and there were flaming logs and trees on both sides of the road, and burning stuff was raining down on us. The forestry crew were still out ahead of us cutting a path. They were working in truly horrifying conditions.
Gusts of wind were so strong that they lifted the side of the ambulance. Sparks and embers were falling on us like hailstones. A rush of flames came up a bank at us, and again I thought it was all over, but again we got through.
At another point Isobel was trying to manoeuvre through the gap in some branches that the men had cut, but she stalled the ambulance and couldn't get it started. I jumped out and ran up the road to where they were cutting another tree and brought them back. One of them got in and got us going and through the gap, and we set off again.
Finally, we arrived at the top of the big hill overlooking Bridgetown where the forest gave way to farmland. Here we were confronted with a massive jarrah tree right across the road. There was no way it could be cut and shifted. We all consulted and the decision was made to cut fences and drive down through the paddocks and see if we could get back on the road at the bottom of the hill. It was a hairy descent, as the hill was very steep and visibility poor, but we made it, got back on the road and were able eventually to reach Bridgetown.
Just as we arrived at the hospital, of all things, it started to drizzle.
We were greeted by a very irate nurse. She hadn't known we were coming and wanted to know why we hadn't alerted them. I explained that we had had no communications out of Nannup or in the ambulance. I felt sorry for her, actually, as the hospital staff were under a lot of stress, with accident victims coming in, and then the possibility that the town (and all the patients in the hospital) were about to be ordered to evacuate. The rain saved the day.
We had a cup of tea and something to eat and then started off on the return journey to Nannup. We didn't relish the idea of the drive, but we were Nannup's only ambulance and it might be needed again.
Eventually we got home. The drive back was not so stressful as the wind had died away and the road had been opened up on the way out. There were still thousands of burning trees and logs on the road verge and it was very frightening ... but we got through. I was relieved to find the kids OK. It had been scary for them for a while when they were alone, but our neighbour Pip Done had been keeping an eye on them, and when Frank got back to town, he had arranged for one of the forestry pilots to stay with them. All the fire spotter aircraft had been grounded during the storm.
The next morning, I took a look at the ambulance. It was filthy, smoke-blackened and dented, but still up for its job if needed.
That drive was the adventure of a lifetime, but not one I would like to repeat. My main memory is of the courage of the three forestry men who cut our path for us, and for Isobel, the hospital cook, who rose to the occasion, never once losing her cool.
What happened to Mr Black, our patient? He recovered ... and became a volunteer for the ambulance service.
A 1970s-era bush ambulance: spic and span ... and clearly not involved in a bushfire mercy dash
One of the three forestry men who worked ahead of the ambulance, opening-up the road for Mavis and Isobel was Alan “Snow” Scott. I got to know Alan well in later years (his brother Ian was also a forester, and a good mate of mine). At the time of the Cyclone, Alan was a forest workman at Nannup, but he was later appointed to the staff and worked his way up, becoming one of the most senior field staff officers in the department. In all the years I knew him he never once mentioned his Cyclone Alby adventure, and it was only after reading Mavis’s story that I discovered he had been one of the heroes.
“Tell me about it, Alan” I demanded. And this was his modest little story:
In 1978 I was 32 years old and working as a Forest Workman at Nannup, mostly in one of the forestry gangs. On the fateful day of Cyclone Alby, I was assisting one of the forest officers tree-marking in the jarrah forest.
Just after lunch we received a radio call from Nannup office, and were instructed to return to headquarters and go onto “standby”, pending further instructions. A cyclone was approaching, we were told. At the time I was staying in my brother Ian’s house adjacent to the office (Ian was a Forest Ranger, but was on Long Service Leave catching prawns up in Exmouth).
Late in the afternoon the forestry phone rang and I was instructed to report to Frank Vince, the Nannup District Forester at the office. Vincy told me to grab a Gang Truck, a couple of guys from the mill, and make sure we had chainsaws and all the gear in the truck. At that stage I didn't know what the assignment was.
The two blokes I ended up grabbing were Ron Green, a mill hand from the Nannup Mill and a fellow Forest Workman Bill Archibald. Ron was about my age and a competent bushman, skilled with various equipment. In those days mill hands were just about considered "one of us" when there was a fire - we would just go down there and grab them. Bill was older, in his 50s, and had been a Forest Workman for many years. He worked mostly around the forestry yard and settlement, but he was tough and fit, and could still be relied upon in an emergency.
Reporting back and ready for action, we were advised by Frank Vince that a local man had been seriously injured and was being taken by ambulance from Nannup to Bridgetown Hospital. Our job was to escort the ambulance to Bridgetown.
It was fairly hairy, but we made it, arriving eventually at Bridgetown hospital. After a short break we returned to Nannup, a much easier trip this time, as there had been a machine go through pushing off the stuff that Bill, Ron and I had cut.
The next day I was given a swamper and a chainsaw and put to work falling burning trees around the edge of the fires that had got into the bush and were being mopped up to prevent breakaways. I felled burning trees all day for six straight days. What with me and Cyclone Alby, a lot of trees hit the deck at that time.
Alan “Snow” Scott
We are lucky that these memories have not been lost. They speak of brave and modest rural Australians, truly the salt of the earth, and they remind us of the power of the human spirit. Re-reading them today reminds me that there was a time when this sort of thing was simply taken for granted in the Australian bush. Today we would see Mavis, Isabel and Alan up before the Governor being awarded medals for bravery, and their stories would have been dramatised on television.
What happened to me and my family during Cyclone Alby? Not much. Ellen took the children (and the dog and the canary) to shelter in her car on the East Manjimup primary school football oval while the storm went through. It was wild and scary, but thankfully the big fires coming down from the north did not hit town. After the cyclone passed and a faint drizzle began to fall, the immediate pressure lifted. I managed to get to bed about 4 am, but was back on the job four hours later.
The day after the Cyclone was devoted to mop-up and clean-up, getting the many bushfires tidied-up and safe, opening roads, getting people home who had been forced to spend the night in a vehicle in a farm paddock, and tending to the wounded and distressed. A planeload of relief personnel flew in from Perth to help out the team at the control centre, one of these being my good mate Wayne Schmidt, who was the Forest Department’s recreation and landscape specialist. I arranged for Wayne to do an inspection of visitor facilities in State Forests around Manjimup, to assess safety concerns and report on damage. One of the places I particularly wanted him to inspect was the famous “Four Aces”, a stand of four magnificent mature karri trees, growing in a line, out past the One-Tree Bridge. They were one of the iconic features of the Western Australian karri forest.
The Four Aces (photo by Lachie McCaw)
At the end of a long day, I was sitting behind my desk, worn out, when Wayne poked his head around the door. “Good news, Roger” he said, straight-faced, “The Three Aces are still standing!”.
They were, and so was the fourth. Wayne still laughs when he remembers the expression on my face.
Mavis Vince’s and Alan Scott’s stories (along with nearly 100 others) are told in Cyclone Alby - memories of the 1978 Western Australian storm and bushfire crisis (2018) by Roger Underwood. Copies can be purchased (with all proceeds going to The Bushfire Front of WA Inc) by contacting the author by email: firstname.lastname@example.org