Fires of 1961

Brief History

Fires of 1961, Hills bush fireDuring the summer of 1961 a series of bush fires raged for 41 days across the south-west of Western Australia . The devastating fires destroyed over 350,000 ha of land and 160 buildings in the State's south-west. The fires burnt through the areas of Dwellingup, Mavanup, Pemberton, Shannon River and Kudardup (near Margaret River ). The first fires started early evening on the 19th of January,as a series of thunderstorms swept through the state following several days of hot and humid weather . At around 6pm reports began flooding in about fires having started by lightning strikes. The first area to report serious fires came from an area about 20km from Dwellingup (110km from Perth) where 10 fires had began raging out of control.

The following day another series of thunderstorms swept the area starting a further nine fires in the State Forests of Dwellingup. At the same time fires began burning in the hills area near Perth at Glen Forrest, Kalamunda, Greenmount and Mundaring. Fires were also reported in areas around Denmark. In four days the fire had claimed over 40,000ha.

For four weeks firefighters were pushed to their limits trying to contain the fires. Then, on the 24th of February, the day everybody was dreading, arrived. Temperatures sored to 41C and due to a tropical storm in the states north, winds of up to 60km/h whipped up in the south-west. A combination of hot temperature and winds was enough to ignite and reignite fires in the forests. Many people from timber towns were evacuated to Dwellingup.

Pinjarra Under Siege

About 24kms down the road the town of Pinjarra was under siege after a massive fire began to approach the town. About 1000 people were in the path of the fire. Dwellingup control centre received a chilling message, that the local garage had just exploded and houses on both sides of the Post Office were in flames, before communications were cut off. The smoke from the fire had caused a communication blackout of all two-way radio's. It was an agonising wait for the control centre. The fire in Pinjarra would claim 123 homes, 2 service stations and 3 shops but no lives.

Small Communities Wiped Off the Map

Dwellingup and nearby mill towns were also in the fires path. Dwellingup sustained considerable damage and had to be virtually rebuilt.

Not so lucky were the small mill communities of Holyoake, Nanga Brook, Marrinup and Banksiadale which were literally wiped off the map. In fact, following the fires, a decision was made not to rebuild these towns.

In early March the fires were to hit Augusta-Margaret River Shire . Causing major fire damage and loss of several historical buildings. The area which was once was the site of the original M.C. Davies Old Karridale townsite was completely destroyed, leaving only a chimney stack. However this fire was believed to have been started by an attempted back-burning strategy and not that of lightning strikes.

Aftermath

In the end, the fire would burn out about 1.8 million ha of land and 160 buildings and cost $35 million in lost homes, businesses and livestock. As a result of the fires the State Government ordered a Royal Commission into the fire management issue. The Commissions in its findings recommended that there be amendments to the Bush Fires Act. The local government would take more fire management responsibilities. Provisions were made for more resources for the Bush Fire Boards and an upgrade of forest management to lessen the threat from wildfires.

The response from the Forests Department was firstly to invest in better equipment, radio communications and weather forecasting. Secondly they commenced a fire behaviour research program to understand more about fire behaviour and to find improved techniques for prescribed burning. Prescribed burning is where low intensity fires are used to reduce the build up of undergrowth, such as leaves and twigs, on the forest floors.

Fires of 2007

Forty six years later Dwellingup was again under threat of fire but this time not by lightning strikes but by what authorities believe is an arsonist. On Saturday the 4th of February, 2007, following temperatures of over 40 degrees, a bushfire was deliberately lit late in the afternoon. The fire swept through farmland at such a fast speed, firefighters struggled to warn residents of the impending danger. By 6pm residents of Dwellingup were being evacuated to North Dandelup Hall where volunteers provided food and shelter for the night. The fire cut power, telephone and the water supply to the town and as a result water tankers had to be sent. The fire burnt to within 3km of the town's centre. By 10pm six houses and many farm sheds had been engulfed by the raging inferno. A huge blanket of smoke rose as high as 1500m into the sky, completely smothering the town centre. More than 250 fire fighters and 14 earthmoving machines worked to contain the blaze and save the historical timber town. It was reported that the searing temperatures caused many of the fire trucks to break down and their tyres to burst during the attempts to fight the fire. The bush fire has been estimated to have ravaged 12,000ha of forest and farmland and destroyed 16 homes. In some cases not even the kitchen sinks had survived the intense heat created by the fires. The Hotham Valley train which runs from Pinjarra to Dwellingup has been closed indefinitely, following the loss of two railway bridges. The estimated cost for rebuilding the two bridges is over $150,000. The Hotham Valley steam train was one of the main tourist attractions for the area and is likely to be closed for at least a year. The arson squad has been assigned to investigate the cause of the fires.

UPDATE:  The Hotham Valley Tourist Railway's Pinjarra Steam Ranger train service, which was suspended following the Dwellingup fire of January 2007, once more travels between Pinjarra and Dwellingup from May to October on Wednesdays and Sundays, following the completion of repairs to several burnt out rail bridges and sections of track damaged by the bushfire.

Please contact the Hotham Valley Tourist Railway on 9221 4444 for more information.

 

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