THE WEEK REVIEWED (Article; Bush Fires: A pictorial survey of Victoria's most tragic week, January 8-15, 1939. Published in aid of the Bush Fire Relief Fund by the Sun News-Pictorial in co-operation with its newsagents, pp2-3) THE fiercest bush fires Australia has known since its discovery are quiescent at the moment, and Victoria, in the comparative coolness of the change which came with rain on Sunday night, has begun·to count its losses. In the fiery eight days, from Sunday to Sunday, at least sixty-six men, women and children have lost their lives in forest fires, or have succumbed to burns and shock; many others have died from heat; and several serious cases of burns are being treated in hospitals. Two babies in Narrandera district have died, and ten others are in hospital, because of milk soured by the record temperatures of those eight days. Forest damage totals at least a million pounds, and incalculable damage has been done to the seedlings which were to have been the forests of the future. Water conservation will be seriously affected by the silting-up of reservoirs and streams from which protective timber has been taken by the all-engulfing flames. More than a thousand houses have been destroyed, and these, with 40 mills, and schools, post-offices, churches, and other buildings, represent a loss of at least half a million. At least 1500 are homeless. For their aid, money raised in appeals has now passed the £50,000 mark, and the biggest relief organisation ever set up in peace time has swung into operation. The First Hint Victoria's first hint of what was to come appeared on Sunday, January 8, when most parts of the State awoke to find a blistering day awaiting. At 12.20 p.m., when the thermometer reached its highest for the day, 109.6 degrees, the first fire victims were at that moment going to their death on a bush track five feet wide off the main road to Narbethong. They were the forestry officers Charles Isaac Demby and John Hartley Barling, who went to warn Demby of his danger when he parted from his companions, and was himself surrounded by the treacherous fire. It was not until 8 o'clock next morning that the tragic news was flashed throughout the State. Searchers found the two charred bodies close together, one seeking protection in the nook of two logs. Barling's watch had stopped at 1.20. In the meantime, tragedy was spreading its cloak. By Monday, big fires were raging at Toolangi, Erica, Yallourn, Monbulk, Frankston, Dromana, Drouin South, Glenburn, and Blackwood, with smaller outbreaks at many other centres. In the ensuing week, while women and children were evacuated as fast as the flames would permit, Erica-scene of the 1926 fire disaster-thrice escaped doom by a change of wind. Indeed, those who have been in the fire country these past days say that the numbers of times a change of wind has saved towns from destruction is amazing. In the towns they speak of miracles. Monday's Miracles The escapes from Monett's Mill at Erica and from the Hardwood Company's Mill at Murrindindi, near where Demby and Barling went to their death, were Monday's miracles. Twenty came out alive from each mill. At the first a 60ft. dugout provided an oven-like refuge; at the second, 12 women and children survived in the smoke-filled gloom of a three-roomed cottage while their eight men, their clothes sometimes afire, poured water on the wooden walls. Three houses out of ten remained when the fire had passed. Record Temperatures Sunday had been the hottest Melbourne day for 33 years; Monday dropped to a 76.1 degree maximum; but Tuesday dawned hotter than ever, the mercury reaching 112.5. By now rumor was racing ahead of fact; whole towns were being reported lost; the alarm was raised for scores of missing persons. But fact soon overtook rumor, and within a few days the staggering toll began to mount to a figure beyond the wildest imaginings of the panic-stricken. Six died from heat on this torrid Tuesday, and the fires spread in a wide swathe from south-west to north-east across the State. Fish died in shallow streams. A curtain of smoke hid the sky from all Victoria, and hung far out to sea. It alarmed passengers on ships. On the Ormonde, on the voyage to Sydney from Burnie, women ran on deck, believing fire had broken out in the hold. Days later the smoke reached New Zealand. In Melbourne thousands of fire-volunteers were leaving in cars: vans, motor-buses-anything reliable on wheels-to aid the country in its grim fight. In the fires at Rubicon and. Narbethong, seventeen were facing death this day. But not till Wednesday, when Melbourne breathed again in a cool change, while the country still sweltered in temperatures up to 117 degrees, did the news come through the tree blocked roads. A woman and her little daughter, trapped on the road, were among those who died. Their bodies, and those of menfolk with them, were found strewn out at intervals along the road, where the furnace of the surrounding fire had dropped them in their tracks as they ran. Twelve died at a Rubicon mill, five on the road at Narbethong. At Alexandra, not far distant, a baby was born while the fires raged, and stretcher-bearers brought in the injured. On Thursday the State Government voted £5000 for the relief of fire victims. The Governor (Lord Huntingfield) and the Lord Mayor (Cr. Coles) visited some of the stricken areas, and dipped into their pockets personally. Later, the City Council, too, voted £5000. Friday, The 13th Friday, the Thirteenth, justified its evil name. A blistering northerly came early in the morning, presaging destruction, and forcing the mercury to a new record of 114 degrees. Racing fires killed at least ten in those terrible 12 hours. Four children were engulfed in the furnace at Colac. Panic drove them, uncontrollable, into the smoke-filled road when the fire raced down behind their home. They choked to death. In other parts fires were joining to make fronts of scores of miles. Kinglake was being menaced on two fronts, £60,000 worth of timber was going up in smoke in Ballarat district. Warburton was surrounded. Residents at Lorne, favoured resort, were being driven to the sea-front by a fire which destroyed at least 20 homes. Healewille. with flames visible from the town at one stage, was in a trough between two fires which burned four guest-houses, seven homes and left its surrounding beauty-spots wastes of bowed-over, blackened tree-fern fronds; with its famous Sanctuary, however, intact. Most of Omeo was destroyed this black day: Noojee. while 200 residents crouched in the river, was being reduced to a waste of buckled iron and smoking timber; Erica was once again saved by a change of wind. Beneath a pall of smoke, the Rubicon victims were buried at Alexandra. Friday night and the early hours of Saturday saw the streets of beleagured towns strewn with exhausted fire-fighters. Their flails beside them, ready for the next call, they lay where exhaustion overtook them-on footpaths, beside lamp-posts, in gutters, in cars, under trucks. Saturday's dawn brought clear skies and lower temperatures in many parts, and from the burnt-out areas came a great rush of tragic reports. The death-roll rushed past the fifty mark with incredible speed. Some had been trapped on roads, others at mills; some, after burying their treasures, had clung too long to the places they had made their homes for many years. Four men lost their lives because one went back for his dog. By Sunday, when the first of the saving rain came, nearly another score of names had been added to the list.
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Published in aid of the Bush Fire Relief Fund by the Sun News-Pictorial in co-operation with its newsagents.