The Dwellingup Fire - voices from Western Australia's worst bushfire disaster
A radio play by Roger Underwood
The morning after: January 25th, 1961
Overture: the first two minutes of ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons … fades into:
Sound FX: Banshee wind, crackling and roaring of fire, rumble of thunder.
Voice of Jim Williamson (over): The roaring sound. What I remember most is the tremendous roar and crackling, as the flames raced through the trees and into the town. What I remember next is the faces, especially the faces of those gathered at the pub whose loved ones were missing and feared lost.
Narrator: These are the words of Jim Williamson, a young forester who was in Dwellingup on the night of Tuesday 24th January 1961. This was the night that Dwellingup and two other nearby towns were burnt to the ground, and over a million acres of forest and farmland were incinerated. It was Western Australia's worst bushfire disaster.
What happened? First, southwest forests were ill-prepared for fire. Government policy had seen almost no fuel reduction burning for several decades, and the bush was carrying heavy fuels. Second, there was shocking weather, and catastrophic conditions.
In the period January to March of 1961 the southwest of WA experienced a succession of ugly weather events, each one typical of that most feared phenomenon for Western Australian firefighters: it is the double-whammy, first a large high pressure system stationary in the Great Australian Bight, drawing hot dry winds from the interior into the southwest; and second, a tropical cyclone brewing off the Pilbara coast. The two interacting weather systems produced powerful winds and atmospheric instability, with dry thunderstorms and lightning. In most summers these conditions might occur once. During the 1960/61 summer they occurred three times, all resulting in heat-waves, lightning storms, and savage bushfires. The genesis of the 1961 disaster isthus readily summarised: firefighters were confronted with the worst possible combination of events: many fires, started more-or-less simultaneously, burning in heavy fuels, under extreme weather conditions.
The situation was well described in the subsequent report of the Royal Commission:
Stern judicial voice: … hot, humid, rainless conditions culminated on 19th January when severe electrical storms produced a series of lightning fires extending from Mundaring in the north to Manjimup in the south, to be followed by further severe, dry thunderstorms and lightning fires the following evening. The fires thus started, burnt under continuing heatwave conditions for the next five days and a disastrous "blow up" occurred on the evening of 24th January, when cyclonic winds associated with the southern movement of a tropical cyclone struck miles of partially controlled and uncontrolled fires. Heavy destruction of forest land and property resulted......
Narrator: The bald and dry reporting of the Royal Commissioner is to be expected in an official document, but it fails to convey the drama and tragedy of the events. For this we must turn to the voices of the firefighters and survivors, the people who were there, at the front, at the time, and who later recorded their experiences.
Frank Campbell was the DFO, or Officer in Charge of the Forests Department’s HQ at Dwellingup at that time. In this position he was responsible for bushfire control over the hundreds of thousands of acres of the jarrah forests around Dwellingup. He recalls:
Sound FX: Rumble of thunder and crack of lightning, fades …
Voice of Frank Campbell: I was in the forestry office with my senior staff on the Thursday the fires started. We all knew there was going to be trouble ... the first lightning storm came through late in the afternoon and Albert Kalnins, the lookoutman at Mt Wells fire tower, began to phone through the lightning strikes. We mobilised the gangs and officers right from this point. By 6.30 pm we had plotted six separate fires in the Dwellingup forests. They were burning in heavy fuels under hot and windy conditions.
Every officer and firefighter were dispatched, and overnight they did a wonderful job. By early the next morning, all but one of the fires had been stopped. But stopping the running fire is only the first stage in firefighting. There was a big mop-up job ahead of us to make the fires safe.
Narrator: Then came the kicker. Frank Campbell arranged for the fire lookout towers to be manned from before dawn on the next (Friday) morning. He goes on:
Voice of Frank Campbell: As soon as the lookout towers were up at first light, four new fires from the previous night’s lightning storm were identified. The temperature that day reached 41C and we all knew we had a cruel day ahead of us.
Narrator: Des Donnelly was a 17-year-old cadet forester, and a member of Jimmy Warren’s forestry gang at that time. He was one of those who worked all through that first night. In the late-afternoon of Day One, the crew had been dispatched to a spot deep in the forest east of Dwellingup where a smoke had been reported. Des recalls:
Sound FX: old truck grinding its gears and pulling to a halt
Voice of Des Donnelly: The fire was confined to the topmost branches of a very large jarrah tree which had been struck by a bolt of lightning. A shower of rain had dampened the bush and prevented spot fires from starting at the foot of the tree. We walked in, carrying our gear, and found the tree.
By this time, it was almost dark. We did not have a chainsaw and so we had to fell the tree with axes and a crosscut saw.
Sound FX: steady beat of axes chopping, fades, and is heard under, as Des continues …
While two of us worked on scarfing the tree with axes and then backing it down with the crosscut, the others raked a fire trail around the area immediately surrounding the tree. The bush had dried out and spot fires were beginning to take hold. Finally, we got the tree on the ground and were able to burn out the area within the rake trail.
While this was going on our overseer Jimmy made a radio call to HQ. He was told to pack up immediately and head to a running fire on North East Road.
We arrived at this fire about one o’clock in the morning and proceeded to carry out the standard attack, starting on the head fire and working back around the flanks. It was ironstone country and hard going … but we managed to get a raked trail around the fire by daybreak and stop the running fire.
Narrator: Normally in those days when a forestry district had a bad hit with lightning fires like this, gangs and officers would stream in from the neighbouring districts to relieve the crews that had been out all night, and to complete the mop-up. But no help was available for the Dwellingup crews – the lightning storm had run right down the jarrah forest, starting numerous fires in the Mundaring, Jarrahdale, Harvey, Collie and Manjimup districts, and everyone had their hands full. There was no system of State-wide back-up at that time, no rural fire service. The Dwellingup forestry crews were on their own.
As often happened in these circumstances and at those times, the Forests Department turned to the timber industry: there was a massive call-up of timber workers to work on the fires. The sawmills at Banksiadale, Nanga Brook, Chadoora, Whittakers and Dwellingup all came to a halt, and mill and bush crews were placed under the control of the Forests Department.
Timber worker Don Devlin was one of those drafted in as a firefighter.
Voice of Don Devlin: In 1961 I was living in Holyoake. The usual thing in those days was to go to the picture show in the town hall in Dwellingup on a Friday night. On this Friday night I was standing in the line to buy tickets with my wife Judy when a young forestry officer came along. All the young able-bodied men were pulled out of the line, told to go home and cut a crib and report to the forestry office in half-an-hour. We would be going to a fire.
I got the idea that things were fairly desperate. The forestry had more fires to fight than men to fight them.
Narrator: Frank Campbell’s story continues. He is in the Ops room of the Dwellingup Forestry Office:
Sound FX: Background babble of forestry telephone bells ringing and voices on radio
Voice of Frank Campbell: By about midday on the Friday [Day 2] we were in serious difficulties. All crews were committed at fires east and north of Dwellingup.
Then at 1.15 pm we got a report of a new fire north-west of Dwellingup. The only people I had left to send to this fire were Gordon Styles, a young Forest Ranger, and old Alf Passmore, the mill overseer. They were armed with pack sprays and rakes and an old jeep with a light pump on the back. By the time they got to it, this fire was already unstoppable. This is the fire that became known as The Torrens Fire, and it was this fire that eventually took out Dwellingup. It had been started by the first lightning storm on the Thursday evening, but had lain dormant for nearly 12 hours before getting up and starting to run.
Narrator: But worse was to come. Frank Campbell goes on:
Voice of Frank Campbell: At about 9 pm [on Day 2 of the fires], a second massive lightning storm came through the jarrah forest. There was now a feeling of serious anxiety amongst the foresters in the Dwellingup office. Four new fires were detected between 9.55 pm and 11 pm that night, and between 9.30 am and 11 am on Saturday morning another four new fires were reported. The temperature that day reached 40 degrees and there were strong swirling winds. Fire behaviour was erratic and extreme.
In the office we were trying to do an impossible juggling act. Crews would be shifted from a fire that was deemed relatively safe to one of the new fires; then we would get a report of a danger spot somewhere else and new arrangements would be made.
Voice of Roger Underwood: I have been in situations like this when I was a Forests Department DFO. I can easily imagine the scene in the Dwellingup office: the tension and fears, the poring-over of maps, the telephone bells jangling, the radio crackling, the coming and going of grimy, exhausted officers, a stream of reports of new fires coming in from the lookout towers, and a pervading but unspoken feeling of dread. But luckily, I was never in the position Frank Campbell and his colleagues found themselves in at Dwellingup on the Tuesday of the fires. There had been five successive days of temperatures above or around 40 degrees. The firefighters were close to exhaustion and were thin-spread across a vast sea of burning forests.
Narrator: Could things get worse? Yes, they could. At this moment, the tropical cyclone that had been hovering around up in the Pilbara, suddenly made its move. It roared south. Cyclonic winds hit the jarrah forest and here they struck the miles of uncontained fire edge north and east of Dwellingup. Everything unravelled.
By now the tough and experienced forester Bruce Beggs had arrived in Dwellingup to support Frank Campbell. Beggs realised that any further attempt to fight the fires in the bush was hopeless, and that townsite protection must become the priority. By mid-afternoon on the Tuesday, he had issued a recall to all firefighters to return to Dwellingup. He had also ensured that the bush townships of Holyoake, Nanga Brook and Banksiadale were evacuated. He had forest officers scouring the neighbouring farms and moving from house to house around the Dwellingup townsite telling residents to prepare for the worst. Families started to move to the football ground to shelter in cars, or to gather at the pub.
Forest Ranger Ted Cracknell recalled his final inspection at Holyoake on the Tuesday afternoon:
Voice of Ted Cracknell: Bruce Beggs instructed me to go out to Holyoake and make sure nobody was left there. He said that the order to evacuate had already been given, but he wanted another check. I drove straight out to Holyoake and circled the town. The place appeared to be deserted. I stopped to check one house, and then, just as I was about to leave, I heard an eerie noise.
Sound FX: Unearthly scream
I thought it was the scream of a child, a terrible call for help. It was coming from the house next door. Could it be? A child left behind? Surely not! And yet ... I had to check.
It was not a child, but a Major Mitchell cockatoo, in a cage, very frightened and upset. I picked up the cage and plonked him in the back of my ute. I drove back to Dwellingup and handed him over to my wife.
Narrator: Timber worker Dave Joynson was also in Holyoake at about this time:
Voice of Dave Joynson: I thought I would slip back to Holyoake and try to pick up a few belongings from Mum and Dad’s place and from [my sister] Tuppy’s place. I went in to the house and noticed their birds in the big cage at the back, so I undid the cage door so they could escape. They had lived in the cage all their lives and wouldn’t leave it, even when I tried to shoo them out.
By this time the fire had almost reached the town. I knew I had better get going or I would get caught. Didn’t have time to pick up anything. In the main street of Holyoake, I came across an old couple who had been trying to evacuate but their car had broken down. The old lady was pleading, but the old man wouldn’t leave his car. I was forced to physically manhandle him into my car. I couldn’t get back to Dwellingup on the back road, the fire was already through there, so had to go out the main road to the bitumen and round past the cemetery. The fire was pretty much right on us by then. Suddenly a huge kangaroo leapt out of the bush onto the road in front of us. He was burning, the poor bugger, smoke coming from his fur. He was in front of me and wouldn’t get off the road. I reckon I was doing 80 km per hour but I wasn’t gaining on him. Just before we got to the Marradong Road he tore off into the bush. I’ll never forget that poor roo.
Narrator: Back in the forestry office, we pick up Frank Campbell’s story:
Sound FX: Fire noises: wind and crackling flames, excited voices.
Voice of Frank Campbell: It was now about 7 pm.
I remember Bruce Beggs taking a small group of men down into the forestry yard to try to save some vehicles and then I didn’t see him again. The others had left the office. There was nothing they could do. The ember storm had arrived and burning brands were falling thickly all around. Houses and buildings started to catch alight, including my own house that was next door to the office. I ripped the front out of my shirt, wet it in a pack spray and wrapped it around my face so that I could breathe and went to try to save my house. I still thought my wife and children were inside. There were two other men and a tanker there, desperately trying to save the house. It was hopeless. I ran back to the office. It was by then well alight. My car was parked at the front and I ran to it, accompanied by Sonny Cave, a Forest Ranger from Mundaring.
The front seat of my car was alight, but we put that out and climbed in. It wouldn’t start – the petrol in the carburetor must have vapourised in the heat – but at last it fired and we tore off. I was heading for Alan Hatch’s house, where I hoped my wife and kids might be. As we drove headlong down the main street, a powerline dropped across the bonnet of the car and then swept over the roof. I instinctively ducked, sat up, found I was headed for a shopfront, swerved back onto the road and kept going. At this moment I spotted the Hatch car on the oval. There, being minded by Nan Hatch like an old mother hen with her chicks, I found my wife and kids.
Narrator: Meanwhile, what was going on at Banksiadale, the mill town just north-east of Dwellingup? Peg Blanning and her husband lived at Banksiadale, but by the second day of the fires, virtually all the men including Peg’s husband, had been called up as firefighters, and only the womenfolk were left in town. Peg recalls:
Voice of Peg Blanning: On the Tuesday about 2 pm we got word that everyone at Banksiadale should be evacuated. The fire was bearing down on us from the north. There were mainly only women and children left by this time as almost all the men were out fighting the fires. I loaded up our Holden utility with our personal possessions and picked up my mother and father from their house. Dad was placed in the back of the ute on a mattress. Other women who had a vehicle and could drive did the same, packing children into the cars or utes. We left Banksiadale in a convoy with Harold Day at the head driving the mill bulldozer. Fallen and burnt trees and logs blocked the road and had to be cleared so we could get through.
The plan was to drive to North Dandalup but there was a lot of smoke about and we decided to stop the night at the old forestry settlement at Huntly. The settlement had been closed a few years before the fire, but the site had been completely burnt out a few days before. The old brick chimneys were all that were left where the houses once stood. There were dozens of dead, burned kangaroos hanging from the wire netting around some of the buildings where they had been trapped trying to escape the flames. But because Huntly had already been burnt, we reckoned it was a safe place to stop for the night.
At first light next morning (Wednesday), we ferried everyone down to the North Dandalup Hall. Several of us had to do three or four trips between Huntly and North Dandalup. At the hall there was a good supply of food and we were well looked after. Volunteers from the local community had all pitched in to help, preparing sandwiches for fire crews and making cups of tea. A lot of these people would have been farmers’ wives.
Just after lunchtime on Wednesday, Roma Kemp and I decided to go back to Banksiadale with food and fresh milk for the men who were fighting the fires nearby. There was pitch black smoke everywhere but we got through to Banksiadale, and distributed food to the firefighters. Mr Perron from the mill office told us to return to North Dandalup because the fire was still dangerous. One of the mill workers who had been fighting the fires, Norm Page, had collapsed through exhaustion. We put him in the back of the ute and headed for Huntly.
…just as we left Banksiadale it started to rain. Roma was so overjoyed to see the rain that she hurled the lid of a milk can into the bush in her excitement. I had to get her to find the lid as the milk can and contents would have come via the generosity of a North Dandalup farmer who would be disappointed if the milk can came back minus a lid.
Narrator: Banksiadale miraculously survived.
Forest officer John Sclater had only recently emigrated to WA from Scotland, but he soon showed his worth. After a day and a night in the field helping organise firefighting bulldozers, he found himself back in town just when the fire hit:
Voice of John Sclater: I had been instructed to stay in the Forests Department yard and assist with its defense. There were three of us. Bill Hayes the Dwellingup storeman was one, but I can’t remember who the third was. We went round the yard closing up doors on sheds. We got the last of the stock of 44-gallon drums and packsprays out of the store and filled them all with water. These were then positioned round the buildings in the yard in the hope that we could use them effectively when the time came. The futility of all that became apparent as soon as the fire front hit.
With the smoke pouring in over the town it was an early dusk. The smoke cloud then began to light up with bursts of orange and yellow and got progressively brighter. The wind was rising and the noise of the wind and the approaching fire front was considerable. Burning embers began landing in the yard, which we extinguished, and for some minutes we thought we might win. But the light shower of burning material became a firestorm as the front came through the bush at the far end of the yard. Burning bark and off-cuts were being lifted from the sawmill waste heap and hurled through the air. The mill building succumbed and then the Heavy Duty gantries and the Livingstone huts at the back of the yard were consumed, one by one. Roofing iron from these buildings began scything towards us, making our cross-yard trips hazardous. The long shed in the middle of the yard got alight at the windward end and the fire tore through the building. This culminated in a massive explosion, which we found out afterwards was probably caused by a store of industrial alcohol used by Alan Hatch in his research work.
We realized about then that the fire front had passed us by, leaving a residual of blazing hedges, houses and other buildings. We decided it was time to get out. The strange thing was that in all of this, I didn’t feel really frightened. Threatened yes, very impressed by it all and very aware of what was happening all around me, but I was still able to function.
There were several vehicles parked in the forestry yard most with keys in the ignition. We decided we would each take one and make a run for it. I took a near-new hard-topped CJ5 Jeep. One of the others took another forestry vehicle and the third choice was a private vehicle. I drove out the gate onto Del Park Road, stopped to pick up someone who emerged from a drain on the far side of the road, and headed for the brightly lit hotel.
Sound FX: babble of voices, revving of vehicles, whining wind.
Narrator: There were numerous similar stories in Dwellingup that night, including one from Gloria Willmott. Gloria Warren as she was then, was a 17-year old, living with her parents, her grandparents and her six siblings in a forestry house on the Banksiadale Road. Her father was Jimmy “Skinny” Warren, the famous forestry overseer. Gloria tells how, as the fire approached, her mother, Mrs. Warren, rose to the challenge:
Voice of Gloria Willmott: Mum took charge. Some of us were put to work hosing down the walls of the house, others to soaking hessian bags and blankets in the wash house and the bath. All the windows and doors were shut tight and fastened. My young brothers Alex and David were then told to push Dad’s ute out of the garage and onto a cleared area out the back of the house.
Mum then assembled us on the front veranda. As we stood there, a huge fireball soared over our roof and made a direct hit on the Grida’s house on the other side of the railway line. The house erupted into flames and instantly disintegrated.
Mum sent David round to the wash house to collect the wet bags, but in a moment he returned empty-handed. The wash house was on fire. Fortunately, we still had the wet blankets that had been soaking in the bath. We grabbed these and set off. Mum was herding us like a flock of chooks. There were nine of us: Mum's elderly parents, me, Elizabeth, Alex, David, Mary, the toddler Heather and Danny the family dog.
Mum’s idea was to head for the football oval or the hotel, but we had left our run too late. The fire caught us before we even reached the railway line. There was a hollow in the ground in front of Jim Carroll’s house, some sort of drain, and Mum bundled us into it. She huddled us together and covered us with the blankets, but these dried out as soon as the heat struck them, so she got me up and she and I ran across to Carroll’s to re-wet them from the rainwater tank, carry them back and get in under until they dried out again. We made three or four trips before the tap stopped running. As I ran back and forth I could see that the houses, hedges and parked cars down Banksiadale Road and the forestry office were all burning.
Narrator: One of the things that has struck me most vividly in many stories from the fire was the courage and resourcefulness of women like Gloria’s mother Mrs. Warren. Like womenfolk everywhere in times of crisis, they rose to the occasion.
There were many acts of heroism and selflessness that night. One story makes me smile. Frank Campbell recalls:
Voice of Frank Campbell: When the fire near Mt Wells broke on the Tuesday afternoon, my assistant Alan Hatch telephoned Albert Kalnins, the Mt Wells lookoutman and told him to evacuate immediately. Albert refused to leave his lookout tower. The senior officer present was Bruce Beggs. He got on the line and made it clear to Albert that he had no option in the matter. This was as well. The whole of the mountain was incinerated and the lookout tower was totally destroyed. When Albert left, he took the log book with him, and later we read in it his final entry:
Voice of Albert Kalnins [heavy Latvian accent]: “Abandoning my post in the face of the enemy, on the instructions of DFO Beggs”.
Narrator: Aged only 18, trainee forester Gerard van Didden was another to display courage and fortitude. Just before the fire struck town, he had been assigned the job of looking after a row of houses in the eastern part of town. Gerard recalls:
Voice of Gerry van Didden: By now the wind was raging and intense showers of sparks were flowing through the air. Spot fires were starting on the walls and in the gutters. At first I found them relatively easy to put out using a bucket and drawing water from the rainwater tanks next to the wash house, and spraying with the knapsack. As I worked, moving from house to house and back, it suddenly struck me that I was completely on my own.
When the main front hit the heat was very intense. Inside the Sclater’s washhouse I found a foil-lined tea chest and I crouched down and pulled this over me. This shielded me from the radiant heat.
How long I crouched there I do not know. But after a while, things seemed to calm down a bit and I decided to give it another go and get to work again. I had to breach rainwater tanks with my axe to get at the water.
I can’t remember feeling scared. Maybe the stress and the lack of sleep over the previous days made me numb to the real danger. Or maybe, still being only 18, I thought I was indestructible. What I do remember is losing all sense of time. Things were going on, but had no reality. I became overcome by loneliness.
Eventually, as dawn came, I found my way to the Hatch house and I was swamped with relief to find a number of families gathered there. Mrs. Hatch gave me a cup of tea. I then went back on patrol and kept at it until nearly 10 a.m. the next morning, when I was stood down.
Narrator: Many people sheltered within the pub, or in cars on the football oval. One of these was Muriel Galloway.
Voice of Muriel Galloway: I was in Mrs Hatch’s car. She was behind the wheel, and on the front seat were Pam Campbell, her baby, my seven-year old son and me. On the back seat were my two daughters, two Hatch daughters, one Campbell daughter and the Hatch dog. It was an uncomfortable night.
Narrator: It was a terrifying scene in the pub, with the thunder of the fire outside and the terror of families with kids inside. Elizabeth Saville made it to the pub after a nightmare run across town in which she had to dodge sheets of roofing iron flying through the air. In the pub she took charge of her grandchildren:
Voice of Elizabeth Saville: During the night, great fireballs hit the town. The whole town was burning. We could see the CWA Hall through the window of the hotel, and watched it burn to the ground.....
Many times during the night the hotel caught fire, but the fires were put out. There were men on the roof with knapsack sprays and buckets. We kept all the doors and windows closed to prevent sparks and embers blowing in. There was one funny, yet sad incident. Someone opened the door to go outside and a kangaroo came bounding in, seeking refuge from the fire.
I spent the night sitting by the children, who were now sleeping. When day dawned the fire had subsided and we were all given a cup of tea. Later that morning, some people from Browne’s dairy down at Pinjarra came in with fresh milk and ice. The ice was used to soothe sore eyes.
We all sat on the veranda, our legs dangling over the side. Time did not matter anymore.
Narrator: Edith Stewart and her husband Dick also spent the night in a car on the football oval as the town burned down around them. She recalls:
Voice of Edith Stewart: We had two young people (Graeme and Beryl O’Malley) sheltering with us in our car. They had a tiny baby. It was terribly hot and everyone was anxious. Beryl could not stop the baby crying. In the end I wet a napkin with some water from our canvas water bag and sponged him and cooled him off, and then I made him a bottle with water from the water bag and some condensed milk that Dick had with him from his firefighting rations. That baby grew up to be a strong six-foot man, proving that the lack of boiled water and hygiene did him no harm.
Narrator: The fire swept through Dwellingup and Holyoake and roared off to the south, where the town of Nanga Brook was also destroyed. When dawn broke the survivors were greeted by a terrible scene. One of those to record his observations was schoolteacher John McCoy who had grown up in Dwellingup, and was now living in Perth. But his parents were still living in Dwellingup, and hearing the news that the town was threatened, he had rushed to the area. With enormous difficulty he and two others fought their way into town along the road from Pinjarra. He recalled:
Voice of John McCoy: About 2 km out of Dwellingup we started coming across burnt-out vehicles. They appeared to have been abandoned on the road as people started to leave town and then were forced to retreat. There were a number of vehicles in the straight, tree-lined avenue just out of Dwellingup. We stopped and checked each burnt-out hulk, concerned that we would find corpses. There were none. Only later did we find out that no person was killed by the fire.
It was just before dawn as we drove into Dwellingup. It was as if a bomb had directly hit the town. Most of the buildings were rendered into piles of ashes with the only prominent remnants being the brick chimneys and stacks of tangled, twisted, corrugated iron sheeting.
Narrator: The biggest problem for the firefighters and survivors was smoke-damaged eyes. This was coupled to shock and exhaustion. Most of the smoke-blind firefighters were evacuated to Pinjarra, and here some fearsome scenes were enacted. Josephine Holland, wife of forest officer Arthur “Dutchy” Holland, had been in Perth on that fateful Tuesday, and was returning to Dwellingup, but could not get through. She and others were marooned overnight in Pinjarra, almost paralysed with anxiety:
Sound FX: voices of women and children, anxious, fade under ….
Voice of Jo Holland: There were no communications with Dwellingup. Later we heard that Mrs Lind the Dwellingup Post Mistress had phoned the Pinjarra Post Office and called for help, and then all of a sudden her line went dead. All the women became very frightened as it was still unknown where our families and husbands were.
Morning eventually came and we had word that men were starting to come in to the Pinjarra Hospital from Dwellingup. I drove straight to the hospital, where the first thing I saw were silent, blackened men with white bandages over their eyes, laid out in lines on the lawn under the trees. I walked up and down the lines looking for Arthur. After a while I found him. He looked terrible. I thought he was dead, but he was just exhausted and temporarily blinded, the result of the drops inserted by the nurses into eyes burned by smoke and heat.
After a little while I was given permission by the doctor to take Arthur with me. We were billeted at the house of the Pinjarra baker. Arthur didn’t make it to the bed. He simply lay down on the floor and fell asleep.
Narrator: There were many stories of heartbreak. Mrs. Rona Gibbings was aged 29 at the time of the fires, living with her husband Tom and three small children on a farm just out of Dwellingup. They had just purchased the butcher shop in Dwellingup and had plans to supply the shop from the stock raised on their farm. Rona recalls:
Rona Gibbings: We had heard there were some bushfires around but were so isolated on the farm that we didn’t really know how bad things were. About five o’clock on the afternoon of the 24th of January we drove into town as I wanted to phone my parents. We had no telephone on the farm. I got through to my parents, who lived in Subiaco, and asked them to come down and meet me in Pinjarra on the 25th and take the children back to Perth. Tom and I wanted to make the house and farm safe should the fire make it to Dwellingup and further south, but we didn’t want the kids around if this happened.
I soon learnt that a crisis was close at hand. Most of the men-folk were out at the fires, and the town of Banksiadale was under severe threat. Tom decided he would stay in Dwellingup to try and save our butcher shop as the fire had reached the outskirts of town. We said our goodbyes and I climbed back in the van to return to the farm to collect clothes.
Driving through town on McLarty Street, I could see that the fire would reach town at any minute. Already burning embers were falling, and 44-gallon fuel drums at the fuel depot were starting to explode due to the heat. We reached the turn-off to Gibbings Road and got about a half-mile down the road when I stopped the van. There was a tongue of fire that had by-passed the town to the west and it caught up with us. Fire balls were flying past us and igniting the trees ahead and above us. I turned the van around and we headed for Pinjarra.
I pulled in to the Pinjarra Hotel, walked into the bar (it was the first time I had ever been in a bar) and asked the men if they knew that Dwellingup was on fire. They came outside, and we could all see the red glow in the sky. One of the men took us to the hall in Pinjarra and we were bedded down for the night. Meanwhile, I met up with my parents, who had decided to drive down from Subiaco that evening rather than wait until the next day. Mum and Dad and I walked the streets of Pinjarra for the rest of the night.
The next morning, I was determined to get back to Dwellingup as I didn’t know how Tom was and he didn’t know where we were. In the end, I couldn’t let my parents take the children away with them… I just needed them close to me.
We eventually got back to Dwellingup. It was a very slow trip, as we had to dodge pot holes caused through tree roots being burnt out from under the bitumen and the road collapsing, and there was debris all over the road. I had to explain who I was to the people who were manning the roadblock – they were already turning back sightseers.
I eventually found Tom at the hotel which had been converted to the first aid post. He was having treatment for his damaged eyes. He told us that our butcher shop had been burnt to the ground.
A few weeks later, Tom and I and the kids went back to the farm. As we stood on the hill and looked down over the property, we could see the destruction. The buildings, vehicles, fences, orchard, and the stock were all destroyed.
For the next six months we lived in the remnants of the cow shed. Half of it was still standing. Clothes and blankets were supplied by the Salvation Army, and a small amount of cash came in from the Lord Mayor’s Appeal. We did not get a penny from the insurance, because the fire was started by lightning, and the insurance people declared it an Act of God.
That fire changed our lives forever.
Narrator: Not all of the stories from the fires were harrowing. Young Frank Caddy, then the forestry mechanic at Nannup down in the south-west, had a wonderful adventure. He was directed to drive Nannup’s Mack Fire truck up to the fire, and he tells an exciting story:
Sound FX: Sound of huge V8 truck revving, and going up through the gears as it accelerates.
Voice of Frank Caddy: A message came down to Nannup that they needed our big Mack Fire Truck. It was urgent, they said, and a police escort had been arranged. Alan Hill (the DFO at Nannup) asked me to drive it up.
The department had two Mack fire trucks at the time. One was stationed at Dwellingup and the other at Nannup. The Macks were 1942-vintage American-built LS10s, and had been acquired by the Forests Department from the RAAF, where they had been used during the War for aircraft and aerodrome firefighting. The LS10 was designed specifically as a Fire Truck. It was relatively light for its size as the object was to get to a fire in the shortest possible time. It was therefore very fast in a straight line ... its top speed was close to 100 miles per hour (160 Km/h).
The police escort were two constables riding BSA 650cc Golden Flash motorcycles. They set off in front of me, riding abreast, and making liberal use of their sirens. However, although the motorbikes were capable of speeds of up to 140 km per hour, they were too slow for the Mack. I was right up them, and holding back. As we tore through Bunbury, my police escort was starting to become uncomfortable, because I was right on their back wheels. Near Waterloo they quietly pulled aside, waved me through and let me have my head.
The speed of that truck was awesome, and the driving conditions added to the thrill. It was left-hand drive, there was no cab, no doors, no seatbelts and only a flat wooden buckboard seat. It would never be allowed on the road these days, but I did what I had to do, and made good use of the horn going through towns. Happily, there were no accidents on that mad ride. Other motorists seemed to recognise that it was an emergency and made allowances.
At Harvey I delivered the truck to a crew standing by waiting for me. As soon as it had got its breath back, the Mack was off out to the fire and put to work.
Narrator: You might remember Ted Cracknell’s rescue of a Major Mitchell cockatoo in a cage from an abandoned house in Holyoake. Ted recalls the end of that story:
Voice of Ted Cracknell: The Major Mitchell cockatoo survived the fire. It lived with us for a while, but that bird hated me. Every time I walked past the cage he would gnash his beak, snarl and hurl himself at the bars in an attempt to get at me. I think he somehow held me responsible for the whole affair. It was a great day when I was able to return him to his rightful owner.
Narrator: And there were some mysteries. Another young forester, George Peet, and some men who had gathered at the Dwellingup pub volunteered to walk the two miles in to Holyoake on the morning after the fire to see if anything survived. They had to walk because all the roads were blocked by fallen trees and debris. George recalled:
Voice of George Peet: The whole area was silent, blackened and glowing, the smoke was thick. Then, as we neared Holyoake we suddenly heard the sound of singing! Up out of a creek rose an old fella clutching a wine flagon. He was well away! He waived the flagon towards us, and walked off.
Narrator: They never saw him again. Nobody ever seemed to know who that old fella was, how on earth he survived the onslaught of the fire that destroyed the town, or what happened to him.
John Hector was also a member of a party who walked in to Holyoake that day. He remembered:
Voice of John Hector: We were standing amongst the wreckage of the town when a small willy-willy went through. The only sound was the clanging of galvanized iron. It was eerie and frightening.
The surrounding forest was totally devoid of life due to the intense heat generated by the huge fuel mass. It is hard to describe. Just a scene with no greenery, no birds, no animals and no insects. The trees with their bare, black trunks were cooked rigid. All that remained of the houses was white ash. Fifty years later I can still recall this unimaginable and unforgettable sight - a scene of total devastation. After the willy-willy passed, the silence was deafening.
After the fire – all that was left of the lovely little timber town of Holyoake
Narrator: At least one story ended happily. Lionel Dobson, the engineer at the Dwellingup sawmill, and his wife Joy had been looking after Isla Eastcott, the 17-year old daughter of their neighbour, Mick Eastcott. Lionel had almost single-handedly saved the Dwellingup sawmill from being burned down and then he and his family, and Isla, sheltered the night in their car on the football oval. He recalled:
Voice of Lionel Dobson: When dawn came and the fire was now past, we returned to our homes. The extent of the damage was unimaginable. Most of the houses were gone. A pall of smoke hung over everything. Amazingly, our house survived, but the Eastcott house next door was completely gone. Poor Isla was heart-broken, and this was on top of her concern for her father. Mick was still with the crews who had been fighting the fire out east. There had been no word from them, and they were all feared lost.
I will never forget the scene later that day. Isla was sitting on our front veranda, inconsolable with anxiety, when a grimy forestry truck pulled up and Mick climbed down. There were tears all round, I can tell you.
Narrator: The return of Mick Eastcott marked the return of the firefighters who had been working on the Wells Fire east of Dwellingup and who had become trapped when the cyclone struck. Nobody at Dwellingup knew what had happened to these men. Thanks to the magnificent leadership of Arthur Ashcroft who was in charge of this fire, they all survived. Arthur had gathered his crews together and led them in convoy through burnt ground to a spot where they could shelter for the night. He recalled:
Sound FX: Convoy of slow-moving trucks slowly coming to a halt
Voice of Arthur Ashcroft: It was a long night. Smoke, ash and sparks were flying everywhere. It was very hard on the eyes and the breathing. In the early morning, as dawn was breaking, one of the forestry men who was an ex-soldier was heard to remark that he had spent ‘better nights in Tobruk!’
I got everyone moving, and using a bulldozer to remove fallen trees we made our way back to Dwellingup, arriving late morning. As we entered the township the stark realization of the town’s devastation was mind-blowing.
The convoy was greeted with sighs of relief by the fire controller, Bruce Beggs. We had been reported as missing. Having ascertained that everyone for whom I was responsible was safe, I was then able at last to relax from the tension that had gripped me for so many hours.
Someone put a cold glass of beer in my hands. It tasted wonderful. It tasted so wonderful that I adjourned to the bar and had a few more. With no sleep and no food for nearly 48 hours, the beers relaxed me very rapidly. So when I was dragged out for an interview with a Channel 7 TV team, it was not surprising that I appeared somewhat disjointed.
Narrator: The aftermath of the fires demonstrated the best qualities of Australian communities. Holyoake and Nanga Brook were never rebuilt, but there was a tremendous energy and espris de corps in Dwellingup and this was devoted to the rebuilding of the town and of its community spirit.
The Australian bush also demonstrated its resilience. As Jo Holland recalled:
Sound FX: (soft) – slow movement of Beethoven's pastoral symphony, fades under …
Voice of Jo Holland: The winter rains and spring of 1961 started the renewal process in the bush. Tiny leaves appeared on the stark, naked trees. Scarlet runner, white Clematis, purple Hovea and yellow wattles bloomed in profusion in the blackened bush. Never had we appreciated the beauty of our wildflowers more.
Sound FX: music slowly fades to silence. Then:
Narrator: Fifty years later Bruce Beggs summed up the conclusion of every firefighter who had been involved in the 1961 fires:
Voice of Bruce Beggs: The great lesson learned from the 1961 bushfires was the need for fuel reduction burning. Without it, no force on earth can stop a forest fire on a bad day.
Narrator: The lesson is a simple one: fuel reduction burning does not prevent bushfires, but it makes them less intense, and easier and safer to control. Luckily, the Australian bush loves fire, and is healthier and more diverse in an environment in which there is periodic mild-intensity fire.
These stories are a unique record of the human side of the great bushfires of 1961. They provide a moving insight into the first-hand emotions, the courage and resilience of those who, in various ways, became caught up in the fires and have never forgotten them.
The costs of the 1961 bushfires were never counted. Nor has there been any estimate of the psychological damage to the people who fought the fires or those who lost everything they had worked their lives for, and had to start again, or those whose hearts were broken and were unable to start again.
How well one Nanga Brook woman summed his up when she was interviewed by a journalist at Waroona the morning after the fire.
Voice of journalist [sharp]: What did you lose?
Voice of woman [sad]: Everything that goes to make a home after seventeen years of married life.
Narrator: The fires are now more than sixty years ago, and over the years many things have changed - in society, in the bush, and in the growth of technology, including firefighting technology. But the fundamentals of the human spirit and the challenges it faces are unchanged. Bushfires still threaten human values and the environment just as they did sixty years ago. Similarly, the lessons learned from the 1961 fires apply equally as well today as they did sixty years ago. Most important is the lesson that Australians must prepare for fires. In the full knowledge that bushfires are inevitable, an intelligent community will take steps to minimise the potential damage and costs, not just wait helplessly and allow the fires to ride roughshod over them.
This has been a Bushfire Front project. We pay tribute to the courage and the spirit of the people who contributed their stories and we remember those who were there at the time and are no longer with us … their stories will now go unheard. We also thank our story-tellers for their memories, and for reminding us what it was like to be at the heart of a bushfire tragedy.
Sound FX: the last two minutes of ‘Summer’ from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons [plus applause from concert audience]. Use: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RvDt_KtOzbc
Postscript to the text
The voices in this play are excerpts from the first-hand stories recounted in the book Tempered by Fire – stories from the firefighters and survivors of the 1961 Western Australian bushfires. The book was published in 2011 to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the fire.
The radio play was performed by the Western Australian theatrical company Theatre 180, and was directed by Jennifer Davis OAM. It was broadcast in three parts by Capital Radio FM 101, on successive Saturday mornings in 2020. The readers included Roger Underwood as Narrator and Ellen Underwood as the voice of Edith Stewart. A podcast can be found at: https://www.capitalcommunityradio.com/podcasts.html