The ’67 bushfires

February 5th, 2017

Fifty years ago this Tuesday, much of southern Tasmania was ablaze. Now we call it the ’67 bushfires; back then it was waking up to breathtaking heat, high winds, and a sun that never managed to get through the smoke. I was 15, and it was the day before school went back after the summer holidays.

I remember the sense of dread as the day got darker and darker, and the fires came up over the back of the mountain. Mum and I were in the kitchen looking out at the hillside across the road. One moment it was fine, then there was a stream of sparks, and suddenly the whole hill was alight.

Mum grew up on a farm in the South Australian mallee, so she knew all about bushfires. We filled the bath with water, soaked towels and hessian sacks, filled thermoses with tea and took it all across the road to the people who were fighting the fires. We rounded up a couple of horses and got them away. Then more tea, more wet sacks.

There was no rural fire brigade back then, and the city brigade was small, funded by the insurance companies, and only equipped to fight the occasional house fire.

So it was all volunteers. People with hand pumps, buckets and wet bags, trying to stop an inferno. Sixty-four people were killed, and 64,000 farm animals. Plus countless wild animals and birds.

Our house was fine, but the fire came close. That evening we stood at the front gate while a steady stream of people stumbled down the street past us. All their houses gone. All of them in shock and covered with ash. One old woman weeping because she hadn’t been able to save her canary.

For years afterwards, one of the most significant and heart-wrenching features of the Tasmanian landscape was the huge numbers of bare chimneys, where the houses used to be.

If you’re in Tassie, there’s a really good exhibition on at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery. That’s where these photos are from.

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