This blog has been and will continue to be a blog about local history and my ancestors, but every so often a current event occurs which warrants recording, particularly if it is an event which our ancestors may have also experienced. This entry, therefore, will be about our recent bushfire which has heavily absorbed the time and resources of our whole community for almost a month now.
Some context from the past, an account from the Midnorth district of South Australia (1867):
“STOCKPORT.” South Australian Register (Adelaide, SA : 1839 – 1900) 23 Dec 1867: 3. Web. 1 Jan 2016 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article39183793>.
I like this update from the Stockport correspondent. He or she generally writes with more preparation and editing. At the time of writing, the shock and fright come through clearly.
The above report might have been written about the Pinery fire experienced by the Midnorth on 25 November 2015. Very hot strong winds and dry crops early in the process of being harvested.
People in rural South Australia are very aware of the risk of fire. I had an appointment out of town on that day which I chose to cancel after seeing the wind. I learned later that several others made the same decision. It was very clear that if a fire started, it would be difficult to control. We all stayed glued to the fire service incident website and the RSS page feed. Farm units (farm vehicles fitted with firefighting equipment driven by trained farmers) were geared up just in case. When the fire did begin it took about fifteen minutes to jump in status from ‘Advice’ to ‘Emergency Warning’ for the town closest to the fire.
This is not common. Fires are reported firstly as an incident, then upgraded to ‘Advice‘ which our fire service defines as ‘Fires that may pose a threat to property or public safety or events that may generate interest or involve a specific risk’. This status means we should keep aware.
Next in the process is the ‘Watch And Act‘ which means the fire is proving difficult to contain. Residents need to be aware that they might be in danger. A ‘Watch and Act’ is no joke. This is when you need to assess your safety and defence capability. Many people will evacuate at this point.
Finally comes the ‘Emergency‘ warning. There are a few versions of this but all of them mean – ‘you are in extreme danger and need to take steps to ensure your survival’. It’s too late to get out of town. Yes, a strong message.
For a fire to jump directly to this status is quite serious. Our ancestors had no such warning system. They might have smelled an occasional whiff of smoke, or maybe seen the fire from a distance, but they could only guess at its strength and speed. They could only estimate its direction and wonder what would happen if the wind changed.
Our family lives in a house which does not provide good defense against fire, in a town which is not deemed a ‘fire safe’ town. What’s more, our nearest ‘fire safe’ town was in the direction of the fire so probably not a good escape plan if needed. At this point we had no warning regarding our own town, but obviously we needed to be vigilant.
We packed the car ready for evacuation. In went the family bible, the clock from my grandparents, our hard drives with all the family records, the wedding album. It’s an interesting exercise, deciding what needs to go and what should stay. I had a list prepared but at the last minute I changed a few items. I’ll shout this one: ANYONE WITH FAMILY HEIRLOOMS SHOULD KEEP A LIST! In the event of an emergency the mind tends to go blank. Things get forgotten. A list written in a calm, safe moment and kept in an accessible place is extremely useful. This was my first opportunity to test this piece of advice and for me at least, it works.
There were more emergency warnings but so far the fire was moving around us.
So there we were, not a breath of smoke in our town because the wind was blowing the fire away from us. It was big, it was dangerous, the day was hot and a wind change was forecast. The wind change was what everyone was waiting for. Until that came it was too easy to run straight into the fire if we left home.
I would like to mention that our fire service was wonderful. This was a fast, reactive and intense event and we received a lot of information. I say this because after every natural disaster there is always a big enquiry with questions and accusations flying around. The uncertainty was due to the weather and the unpredictable conditions around a wind change.
So we waited, knowing things were about to get very nasty. Then suddenly at just a few seconds after 3pm it was there in front of us:
It was truly a monster, a writhing, billowing mountain rushing purposefully towards us. The picture doesn’t really do it justice but it was huge and closing in on three sides. Now of course, we knew which direction to take to get out. We joined the stream of traffic fleeing our little town and headed north east.
They were brave people, our pioneer ancestors. They faced the firefronts with their lives and livelihoods at risk. Without insurance or outside assistance, without a motor vehicle capable of travelling at high speeds, they had little choice but to go through with it.
Another report of the 1867 fire from Stockport:
“STOCKPORT, DECEMBER 19.” South Australian Weekly Chronicle (Adelaide, SA : 1858 – 1867) 21 Dec 1867: 3 Supplement: Supplement to the South Australian Chronicle and Mail. Web. 1 Jan 2016 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article91262091>.
Once again this report described our own fire. It chased us halfway across the Midnorth. We went to the evacuation shelter at Riverton which was soon placed under an emergency warning itself, but being a fire safe town we were in a defendable position at last. As it happened, the anticipated cold change arrived and by 7.30pm the main roads into the fire ground had reopened to allow homeowners to undertake final fire extinguishing activities. We headed back.
As the above article from 1867 said:
“a thousand lights may still be seen through the darkness upon the land over which the conflagration passed”
We saw this, for sure. Unfortunately I don’t have a photograph, I had the wrong youngster manning the camera and I was driving. But we saw it! Spots of flame everywhere, flicking away on a black background as night fell. Without knowing if our house was still standing, we drove deeper and deeper into the fire ground.
By some complete miracle – coupled I suspect with an efficient firefighting service and at least 22 water bombers – our house survived intact. Covered in ash, for sure and the smell of smoke was everywhere inside and out. That’s nothing! We had a house, a property, our chickens were alive. We had no power or water but we had a water tank so that was fine. We had our battery-powered radio and heard about the two fatalities – one a mere eight kilometres from us – and the rising count of destroyed houses.
We went a few days without power and water, long enough to lose everything in the fridges and freezer. Small fry compared to the losses of others. We feel very fortunate.
Once the sun came up on the morning after our return an assessment of the region resulted in a new closure of all roads. As a result we were stuck in our house without power and water and not very much canned food. We were however not alone and it was one of those events which brings the community closer together. On that first post-fire day, the smoke and ash was everywhere around us.
With spot fires constantly flaring around us, we heard sirens all day and half the night. We patrolled for embers and learned to tell the difference between fresh smoke and stale. We tried to console our neighbours who were spending their days killing their injured sheep, cattle and pigs. We saw a lot of dead sheep in paddocks too on that first day. An awful sight, quickly removed.
I’m not going to post any photos of burned out houses because the event is still too raw for those who have lost so much. There are plenty all around us. Instead, I’ll finish with a few scenes from days after the fire when the roads reopened.
Finally, here is another photo from the same position as one of the first photographs above:
Our ancestors did a marvellous job of picking up the pieces. Despite reading the newspaper reports, the aftermath is hard to conceive at times. The continuing smoke, dust, livestock losses and need to treat injuries, water sources polluted with ash … and after the disaster, they rebuilt and still managed to leave us mementos and heirlooms.
How did the little town of Stockport manage after their fire on 19th December in 1867? Here’s the report from that same correspondent for Christmas Day:
“STOCKPORT.” Adelaide Observer (SA : 1843 – 1904) 28 Dec 1867: 3 Supplement: Supplement to the Adelaide Observer.. Web. 1 Jan 2016 <http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article159515346>.
I am so sorry for your ordeal but so thankful you are all okay. I am in awe of your ability to write under the circumstances, and that you could put it into the context of your family history! I can relate to so many things you have said having has a similar experience in 2009. Hoping you are feeling much recovered now.
Thanks Jenny. We are definitely recovered now, except for the expected lingering nervousness if we do catch a whiff of smoke in the air at any time! As I said, we were very fortunate.
Irene, so sorry to hear about this horrendous time in your life. I wish you healing thoughts. When I experienced something like this years ago in WA, my main memory of that time is that the community pulled together very well and it was quite touching how people helped each other (often anonymously). I hope this is the case for you too – that you receive help when you need it.
Thank you, Maria. Yes, the community spirit is quite remarkable and ongoing. We only needed a little bit of help – for instance a Christmas hamper delivered by the local church was very timely. In turn, we have been able to help others around us who lost much more than we did, and organisations such as Blaze-Aid are still active here.
That’s a frightening story told well, Irene. The good part is that your family is safe.