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Inferno on Black Friday 1939: 71 deaths, 3,700 buildings, too much fuel and “lit by the hand of man”

Posted By Jo Nova On January 10, 2020 @ 4:23 am In Global Warming | Comments Disabled

Black Friday 1939

Omeo . Image courtesy of Department of Environment and Primary Industries, Victoria. More photos

Those who don’t know history…

On Black Friday 1939, on a day of high wind and savage 45 degree heat (110 Fahrenheit) many separate fires joined forces in Victoria to make mass conflagrations, one of which burned most of the western flanks of the Snowy Mountains all the way to New South Wales. In the end the conflagration burned through two million hectares, 3,700 buildings, 69 mills and killed 71 people. Five towns were completely destroyed –  never to be rebuilt. At the time, the atmospheric content of carbon dioxide was 310ppm and 90% of all human emissions were yet to be made. Climate Change has nothing to do with it.

In the end, they were horribly unprepared, the forests were horribly overgrown and the weather was horribly extreme.

Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough.

The Stretton Royal Commission into the Black Friday fires found that it “almost all fires are caused by man”, and recommended among many other things, the “common bush practice of controlled burning to reduce risks”. The Commission (as well as the fires) had far reaching effects: spawning roads, firebreaks, dams, aerial patrols. A radio network was set up that was considered better then than what the police and military had (think… that was 1939). The Forests Commission more than doubled the area it was managing.

The report makes for interesting reading: the populace were struck with apathy, letting things become overgrown too close to town. The Board of Works believed planned burns were a bad idea and let the forest manage itself naturally. The people and industry were careless, lighting fires for all kinds of reasons, flagrantly flouting laws they disagreed with or felt were silly and unenforceable. The Minister kept half the funds of the Forestry Commission, and lots of people told a version of the truth that best served their own interests. How nothing changes.

Various Departments competed and fought among themselves and Stretton wanted ” to  expose  and  scotch  the  foolish  enmities  which   mar  the  management  of  the forests by public departments, who, being our servants, have become so much our masters that  in some respects they lose sight of our interests in the promotion of their mutual animosities.

Thanks to David B for sending in these excerpts. I’ve read quite a bit of the report though, no doubt there are plenty more gems to be found. There is some reassurance there knowing that government was just as inept, corrupt and incompetent then. Though we have less excuse…

This coming Monday is the 80th anniversary.

Black Friday, Victoria, Map 1939

Black Friday, Victoria, Map 1939 Wikipedia

VICTORIA REPORT OF THE ROYAL COMMISSION TO INQUIRE INTO

The Causes of and Measures Taken to Prevent the Bush Fires of January, 1939,

and to Protect Life and Property AND

The Measures to be Taken to Prevent Bush Fires in Victoria

and to Protect Life and Property in the Event of Future Bush Fires.

“There had been no fires to equal these in destructiveness or intensity in the history of settlement in this State, except perhaps the fires of 1851, which, too, came at summer culmination of a long drought.

“Balls of crackling fire sped at a great pace in advance of the fires consuming with a roaring explosive noise….”

“The speed of the fires was appalling. They leaped from mountain peak to mountain peak, or far out into the lower country, lighting the forests 6 or 7 miles in advance of the main fires. Blown by a wind of great force, they roared as they travelled. Balls of crackling fire sped at a great pace in advance of the fires, consuming with a roaring, explosive noise, all that they touched. Houses of brick were seen and heard to leap into a roar of flame before the fires had reached them. Some men of science hold the view that the fires generated and were preceded by inflammable gases which became alight. Great pieces of burning bark were carried by the wind to set in raging flame regions not yet reached by the fires. Such was the force of the wind i hat, in many places, hundreds of trees of great size were blown clear of the earth, tons of soil, with embedded masses of rock, still adhering to the roots ; for mile upon mile the former forest monarchs were laid in confusion, burnt, torn from the earth, and piled one upon another as matches strewn by a giant hand.”

 “On that day it appeared that the whole State was alight.

At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Men carrying hurricane lamps, worked to make safe their families and belongings Travellers on the highways were trapped by fires or blazing fallen trees, and perished. Throughout the land there was daytime darkness,. At one mill, desperate but futile efforts were made to clear of inflammable scrub the borders of the mill and mill settlement. All but one person, at that mill, were burned to death, many of them while trying to burrow to imagined safety in the sawdust heap. Horses were found, still harnessed, in their stalls, dead, their limbs fantastically contorted. The full story of the killing of this small community is one of unpreparedness, because of apathy and ignorance and perhaps of something worse. Steel girders and machinery were twisted by heat as if they had been of fine wire. Sleepers of heavy durable timber, set in the soil, their upper surfaces flush with the ground, were burnt through. Other heavy woodwork disappeared, leaving no trace. Where the fire was most intense the soil was burnt and destroyed to such a depth that it may be many years before it shall have been restored by the slow chemistry of Nature. Acres upon acres of the soil itself can be retained only by the effort of man in a fight against natural erosive forces.”

“Millions of acres of fine forest, of almost incalculable value, were destroyed or badly damaged. Townships were obliterated in a few minutes Mills, houses, bridges, tramways, machinery, were burned to the ground; men, cattle, horses, sheep, were devoured by the fires or asphyxiated by the scorching debilitated air. Generally, the numerous fires which during December, in many parts of Victoria, had been burning separately, as they do in any summer, either ” under control ” as it is falsely and dangerously called, or entirely untended, reached the climax of their intensity and joined forces in a devastating confluence of flame on Friday, the 13th of January. On that day it appeared that the whole State was alight.”

 ”These fires were lit by the hand of man.”

The prelude — creeks ran dry and the litter was bone dry

In the State of Victoria, the month of January of the year 1939 came towards the end of a long drought which had been aggravated by a severe hot, dry summer season. For more than twenty years the State of Victoria had not seen its countryside and forests in such travail. Creeks and springs ceased to run. Water storages were depleted. Provincial towns were facing the probability of cessation of water supply. In Melbourne, more than a million inhabitants were subjected to restrictions upon the use of water. Throughout the countryside, the farmers were carting water, if such was available, for their stock and themselves. The rich plains, denied their beneficient rains, lay bare and baking; and the forests, from the foothills to the alpine heights, were tinder. The soft carpet of the forest floor was gone ; the bone-dry litter crackled underfoot ; dry heat and hot dry winds worked upon a land already dry, to suck from it the last, least drop of moisture. Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough. The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen. And so it was that, when millions of acres of the forest were invaded by bushfires which were almost State-wide, there happened, because of great loss of life and property -, the most disastrous forest calamity the State of Victoria has known: These fires were lit by the hand of man Seventy-one lives were lost. Sixty-nine mills were burned. Millions of acres of fine forest, of almost incalculable value, were destroyed or badly damaged. Townships were obliterated in a few minutes Mills, houses, bridges, tramways, machinery, were burned to the ground; men, cattle, horses, sheep, were devoured by the fires or asphyxiated by the scorching debilitated air. Generally, the numerous fires which during December, in many parts of Victoria, had been burning separately, as they do in any summer, either ” under control ” as it is falsely and dangerously called, or entirely untended, reached the climax of their intensity and joined forces in a devastating confluence of flame on Friday, the 13th of January. On that day it appeared that the whole State was alight.

 The departments competed and bickered among themselves:

To enable a report of full effect to be made, it would be necessary to inquire into and resolve the preliminary problem of the coordination of control of forest lands by, and recognition and preservation of the rights of, the various persons and departments whose interests are rooted  in the soil of the forests ; to inquire into the constitution and administration of some of these departments ;  to   expose   and   scotch   the   foolish   enmities   which   mar   the   management   of   the forests by public departments, who, being our servants, have become so much our masters that  in some respects they lose sight of our interests in the promotion of their mutual animosities. Nevertheless what will be suggested, should it be thought to be of value, can without insuperable difficulty be later fitted to any change of forest lands control.

… the day is yet distant when we may be able to say that we have, not a condition of perfect safety, but at least a working plan and the knowledge that the plan has the approval of the rural populace. Without their approval and goodwill there can be no real plan because it is man who causes the fires in all years, as he caused the fires of 1939.

The people were apathetic:

(i) General Apathy.—Throughout the State there is an attitude of apathy towards fire prevention. With the exception of the volunteers of the Bush Fire Brigades and the Country Fire Brigades whose services to the State have been of very great value, few people have had any interest in the subject. Townships have been allowed to be encroached upon by scrub. No attempt, in many such places, has been made to render safe the township or its environs by clearing or conservation of available water.

 In short: Fire is a part of life and we can’t ban people from the forests:

As fire is one of the necessary concomitants of living, it is suggested that it is impossible to prevent the outbreak of bush­fires as long as mankind pursues his manifold interests in the bush. To forbid the forests to all men would be absurd, unjust and impossible of enforcement. That such measures as were being used to prevent the outbreak of bush fires were shown in January 1939 to have failed, is insufficient of itself to lay blame upon anybody whose duty it was to devise and operate those measures. The season was exceptional.

Self interest and the Truth

The  truth  was  hard   to   find.  Accordingly,   your   Commissioner   sometimes   sought   it   (as he was entitled to do) in places other than the witness box. Much of the evidence was coloured by self interest. Much of it was quite false. Little of it was wholly truthful. The timberworkers were afraid that if they gave evidence they would not be given future employment in the mills. It is difficult to imagine a sufficient reason for the absence of representation of these men before the Commission of Inquiry. Some of them, disregarding advice, gave evidence, which was clearly truthful. The Forest Officers were, in the main, youngish men of very good character. Mostly, they were afraid that if they were too outspoken, their future advancementin the Forests Commission’s employ would be endangered. Some of them had become too friendly with the millers; whose activities they were set to direct and check. It was regrettable that some of the saw­millers and some of the Forestry Officers were loud in praise of one another, when, to the knowledge of both each had neglected many obligations in the matter of fire prevention and suppression.

Of the Forests Commission, the Chairman, Mr Alfred Vernon Galbraith, alone was called to speak for the Commission. He found himself in the embarrassing position of being the truthful sponsor of what he thought was a bad case. He is a man of moral integrity. If he were freed from the preoccupations attendant upon a life of enforced mendicancy on behalf of his Department, and if his Commission were placed beyond the reach of the sort of political authority to which he and his department have for some time past been subjected, he would be of greater value to the State and would be able to devote himself more closely to (inter alia) what should be the first consideration of every forester, the problems of fire prevention and suppression.

The two main bodies in control disagreed on how to manage things. The Forests Commission wanted to burn things. The Board of Works felt that controlled burns harmed the water supply, weren’t needed, and wanted to wait for the forest canopy to mature and for the underscrub to naturally thin out in the shade. The problem was that while they waited for the canopy to mature, these big fires would come, destroy the canopy, and let even more scrub regrow in the new light on the forest floor. Stretton was not impressed and commented that by this cycle, the Board ensured its property would always remain dangerously inflammable…

The Board of Works and the Forests Commission were virtually the only preventive agents  in the State—

(i) The Board of Works.—The Board has permitted a condition of great danger to exist in its areas. Being apparently well supplied with money, it has for preventive purposes an adequate staff and good organization. The area it controls is comparatively small and manageable. For the greater part its methods accord with those that have been practices, but on too small a scale, by the Forests Commission. The difference in substance between the methods of these two bodies is that the Board refuses to use burning as a general preventive method. It is long established by foresters in other parts of the world that in conditions such as exist in many parts of the Board’s areas,burning is the only effective safeguard. The Board has practised burning for marginal protection of its areas.

But where the areas abut on or are adjacent to other forests or settlement the precaution taken in some cases to be insufficient to arrest the spread of fires from the Board’s territories, whatever the place of origin of such fires may have been. As a method of compartmenting its areas or of making protective breaks, burning is not employed by the Board. It argues that fire in its area is harmful to water supply. It relies on the growth of forest canopy to suppress inflammable scrub. It admits that in large tracts of its territory, the canopy is impaired and cannot be restored until many years have passed, and that while the restoration is proceeding, we may expect at least two abnormal seasons which will bring with them abnormal bush fires. So it would appear, by the argument advanced by the Board, that having regard to the certain recurrence of major bush fires in the known cycle of abnormal seasons, the Board’s property must always remain dangerously inflammable. It appears that a large part of the Board’s policy of prevention of outbreak and spread of fires is to be left to Nature. Nature, however, in another department of its working sends the abnormal season which encourages the major fire which consumes the forest.

…the condition of the Board’s areas assisted the spread of fires which occurred in January 1939; that the destruction of private property resulted, and that had preventive burning been employed within the areas and more widely employed on the margins of those areas, such spread would have been retarded, and such destruction would have been avoided.

Apparently the Forestry Commission said they didn’t have enough money (no one ever does), though it was true that half their budget was placed entirely in the hands of the Minister, not the Forestry Commission, and we all know how that works.

———————————————

Stretton Royal Commission and long-term consequences

As a consequence of Judge Stretton’s scathing report, the Forests Commission Victoria gained additional funding and took responsibility for fire protection on all public land including State forests, unoccupied Crown Lands and National Parks, plus a buffer extending one mile beyond their boundaries on to private land. Its responsibilities grew in one leap from 2.4 million to 6.5 million hectares. Stretton’s recommendations officially sanctioned and encouraged the common bush practice of controlled burning to minimise future risks.

— Wikipedia

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