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The 1961 Crowea Fire

The bush crowea (Crowea angustifolia) is one of my favourite wildflowers. It comes away in an abundance in the karri forest after a bushfire, with a mass of pink and white star-shaped flowers. It always seems to me to combine floral beauty with a sense of renewal. But it is also a reminder of one of the most harrowing events of my youth: the big bushfire that started in Crowea State forest in February, 1961, later to become known as the Crowea Fire. It is still regarded as one of the most severe fires ever to occur in the karri forest.

I know about the Crowea Fire. I was up to my neck in it, from first to last.

In the summer of 1960/61 I was a forestry student working on my university vacation in the Forests Department’s Pemberton district. It was a salutary experience. The DFO Pat McNamara drew up a roster, and this arranged for me and my fellow-students to take turns as forest workmen or as the lookoutman up the Gardner Tree fire lookout (a job which Pat could not get the locals to undertake because of their concerns about the safety of the tree – a fact we only learned years later. The ttree was nearly 200 feet tall, and the top 50 feet was dead and rotten).

Our overseer was Ted Loud, and he was very tough, very demanding and very intimidating. At that stage of my career (I was aged 19) I was slightly better than a new-chum firefighter, as I had spent the summer of 1958/9 in Bob Mylum’s gang at Dwellingup and the summer of 1959/60 in Bill Russell’s gang at Nannup. I had consequently worked on many fires in the jarrah forest. Nevertheless, Ted regarded his gang of students as hopeless novices, and he gave us intensive training in fireline construction using slashers and shovels, mopping up with shovels and cutting logs with axes and cross-cut saws. We didn’t go much on training exercises where we had to build firelines by hand in thick karri scrub when there was no fire. But it was as well that Ted put us through the training, as in the subsequent weeks we were fighting real fires on a regular basis, and the job in the karri country was very physically demanding. Ted’s army-style training methods stood us in good stead.

The Crowea Fire started on one of those horror days for foresters. It was late February, and the bush was dry. A lightning storm flickered its way across the forest and numerous fires were started. We were at one of the fires somewhere east of Pemberton by mid-morning, and after a few hours of slashing and spade-breaking it was successfully brought under control. But the towers kept reporting new smokes popping up, and in the afternoon our gang was sent to a reported fire in the Crowea Forest, just south of the Warren River.

Forestry overseer Ted Loud - the toughest man in the karri forest (photo by John Evans)

We had some difficulty in finding the fire, but eventually spotted the smoke about 300 metres in from a narrow forest track. It was by now about four in the afternoon. Carrying our gear, we pushed in on foot. The bush could not have been burnt for many years previously, as it was almost too thick to walk through. Eventually we made it to the fire. The gang comprised Ted and about four forest workmen, including two students (George Matthiessen and me). The fire was burning quietly, because there had been a sprinkle of rain with the thunderstorm, but it still covered about two or three acres (about a hectare). The flames were up to a meter high, but sparks and ash were flowing up into the tree canopy above. Ted put us to work and in about three hours we had dug a spade-break around the fire and had it (only just) under control. But the edge was raw, and there were trees alight where sparks had lodged in pockets of dry limbs, and hopovers were occurring all the time.

As soon as the running fire had been stopped, Ted set us to patrolling the spade-break, putting out hopovers and mopping up by burying burning logs with our shovels. This was a hopeless task. Some of the old karri logs were taller than me. Meanwhile he walked back to the truck to set up the radio, report in and and request assistance. In particular he wanted a bulldozer, a Heavy Duty pumper and an experienced faller. When he returned he told us we were on our own. Every other man and machine in the district, and elsewhere, was tied up on a fire somewhere.

It was long after dark by then, and we were all dog-tired. Ted arranged for us to have a bite to eat and then take it in turns to patrol the edge or lie down and have a sleep, which we did right there on the burnt ground. I don’t think Ted went to sleep that night at all. If he wasn’t booting one of us up the backside to take a turn on patrol duties, he was constantly on the move around the fire himself, throwing stuff in, burying hot coals and so on.

As soon as it became light we knew we were in trouble. The fire was not running at that stage, but it was not mopped-up, and so was still alive. Several trees had fires twenty metres or more above us, burning in old limb stubs. The effects of the spots of rain the previous day had worn off, and as soon as the sun came up we started to get spotfires across our spade-break. By mid-morning the temperature had risen dramatically, and our worst fears were realised when a strong, blustery northerly wind developed. Within minutes of this, we lost the fire. There was little we could do – the headfire was moving more quickly than we could dig a spade-break, and the heat was too intense to get close to it. The flames were now reaching up into the tree canopy. We had no water, no pumper, no bulldozer. Tree crowns started to flare high above us. Ted pulled us together and led us back to the truck at a stumbling run. The fire was to our left, and was starting to roar.

At the truck, Ted tried to contact HQ, but the old HF radios in gang trucks in those days were hopeless, and he couldn’t get through. Suddenly one of the gang shouted and pointed. There were spot fires beyond us to the south, the other side of the track on which we must make our escape. The fire had lifted in intensity and was spotting two or three hundred metres. We were now between the head fire and the spot fires. Ted let fly with a well-known forestry expletive, then shouted “C’mon!” and we all piled into and onto the gang truck. But we were facing the wrong way! Ahead was the steep valley of the Warren River and no river crossing! And it was one of those narrow forest tracks in the karri country where there is nowhere to turn around, especially in a 3-ton truck. Reversing at speed along a narrow, twisting track was not an option.

Just then we had a stroke of fortune. About 150 metres down the road, in the wrong direction, we came across an apiary site, complete with white, wooden beehives sitting on a cleared area on the edge of the track ... and no beekeeper in sight. Ted drove straight into this, scattering hives, turned the truck around and made a dash for safety. We got through, with probably about five minutes to spare. George and I were on the back of the truck, hanging on for dear life, half-blinded by the smoke and with embers burning holes in our clothes. Amazingly we were not stung by the bees. This was especially fortuitous in my case as I am allergic to bee-stings; I would have been disappointed to die from insect bites, having escaped being burnt to death in a bushfire.

An apiary site in the karri forest (photo courtesy of Ian Kealley)

From that point on the Crowea Fire became a Major Fire, with all the bells and whistles. Our gang did not go home for three days. We slept on the ground under the gang truck and ate 'tinned dog' (the forestry name for camp pie) and dry Capstan biscuits. Bulldozers were brought in, and gangs of men were recruited from the Pemberton and Northcliffe sawmills. Forestry gangs, many of whom had already been at the Dwellingup fire a few weeks ago, started to arrive from distant districts. At one stage it was thought the fire had been caught and would be contained north of the Pemberton-Northcliffe railway line, but then a big spotfire was discovered south of the highway in Dombakup State forest. And then just as that was caught, another fire appeared further south again down near the Richardson Road. Eventually most of these fires joined up. At least one of them ended up running into the Southern Ocean (the “Big Break” as it was known to firefighters in the karri country) down near Windy Harbour.

Unlike the Dwellingup and Karridale Fires, the Crowea Fire did not burn down towns or cause serious losses on farms. It was basically a forest fire. Nevertheless, thousands of hectares of beautiful mature old-growth karri forest was destroyed in this fire. Some of it did not have seed at the time of the fire, and it was years before these areas could be properly regenerated.

I knew little about the big picture of the fire at the time, of course, but later studied the fire history and talked about it with Pat McNamara and John Meachem (the Regional Superintendent, who ended up as fire controller). After that first night on the original lightning strike, I was mostly plodding along behind a D4 bulldozer with a shovel or helping a Heavy Duty crew with mop-up work.

I have three vivid memories which will strike an immediate chord with anyone who was involved in forest firefighting in those days.

The first was when I was patrolling a section of the fireline by myself, and discovered a hop-over burning quite nicely, 10 metres or so on the wrong side of the fireline. By dint of heroic work with the shovel, I knocked it down and put it out. Then another started nearby. I dealt with that one, and then noticed another. A dead branch on a tall karri tree was alight above me and it was dropping burning brands across the fireline. I was nearly crying with exhaustion and frustration as I worked on these, alone, for what seemed hours but was probably about ten minutes before, thank God! Ted pulled up in the gang truck, leapt out, got the pump going and ran out the hose to help me. Not long afterwards Drafty Hunter turned up driving a D4 bulldozer, put in a new fireline where the burning brands were falling and we burnt out the patch. The lesson I learned was this: under windy conditions, in heavy, dry fuel, a firefighter is battling to suppress a fire even if he is right there at the moment of ignition. The rate of spread, and the fire intensity is simply too high.

My second memory is spending a night as swamper for Herbie Deadman. Herb was a forestry worker in those days (he later became a respected forest officer), but not long before this he had been an axeman faller for Simper’s Mill. Herb had been issued with one of the new McCullough one-man chainsaws - the department's very first chainsaws. Our job was to fell burning trees along the edge of one sector of the fire. Very few trees were felled on that sector that night, indeed none. Herbie and I took turns to pull the starting cord on that bastard of a chainsaw for hours on end, without getting a cough out of it. We dismantled it twice, cleaned everything in sight, remantled it, tried every trick in the book, called on the Gods and threatened the thing with immolation, but it would not start. I think that was the moment I first started to hate two-stroke motors, an emotion that continues to this day.

My final memory is going to sleep, standing up, in the back of a truck when we were finally sent home. I had read of the troops in World War I coming back from the battlefield sleeping standing up, but until then I had not understood that it was possible.

There were other fires at Pemberton that summer and a really nasty one down near Dog Road in the Shannon, but I did not take part in them. Straight after the Crowea Fire ended, it was time for me to resume my university studies and I left for the other ‘big smoke’.

I was not there the following spring when the Crowea wildflowers bloomed in the burnt-over country. I heard they were a lovely sight.


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