The speech by Senator Chris Back on the occasion of the launch of the book “Tempered by Fire” at Dwellingup on Sunday 23rd January 2011
When Roger Underwood asked me to launch the book “Tempered by Fire” I was naturally honoured. As a past chief executive officer of the Bushfires Board of WA and a Western Australian senator with a keen interest in our natural environment, I hold strong views on the need for a well organised and concentrated programme for fuel reduction to protect our communities, built assets and the natural environment generally.
I was humbled as I read through the accounts that make up the 44 chapters of this excellent book and realised there are many of you far more deserving to be here speaking than me.
It is amazing how quickly 50 years goes by. I was 11 living in Bunbury and remember it vividly. Possibly because I was at school with Colin Lind and my mother was a close friend of Mrs Lind who played her role in keeping the Dwellingup Post Office operating until the phone lines burnt down and she could communicate no longer.
To summarise some facts about the events surrounding the Dwellingup fires:
a) More than 400,000 ha (1 million acres) of forest and farmland was burnt in the southwest of W. A. that summer. Three quarters of this burnt around Dwellingup in January 1961.
b) For five days, temperatures soared into the mid-40s and relative humidity got down to less than 15% with howling northerly and easterly winds.
c) There were 26 lightning strikes in 24 hours on 19th January to ignite the fires
How do you summarise the recollections and raw emotions of those who contributed to this book?
How do you capture the excellence of forest and fire management by those involved, and the bravery and sheer commonsense exhibited by so many, and the innate Australian sense of humour which comes through so strongly – and the miraculous circumstances which resulted in not one human life lost?
On this 50th anniversary of the Dwellingup fires, we have the opportunity to remember those who have gone before us, those so tragically affected by the destruction of your towns, and to prompt all Australians to reflect on the lessons we need to learn.
The Rodger Royal Commission was established within three months of the Dwellingup fires and reported to government in August 1961. Both Western Australia and the nation should have been well served by the recommendations from that report.
In only two weeks time we will commemorate the second anniversary of the horrific Black Saturday fires in Victoria in 2009.
This and other catastrophic fires in eastern Australia over recent years are stark reminders to everyone of the failure of governments and those responsible for the safety of their communities to heed the fundamental lesson of Dwellingup.
I cannot put it any more simply than DFO Frank Campbell in his opening chapter:
Nothing angers me more than when I observe governments and bureaucracies who have failed to learn and apply the lessons from tragedies like Dwellingup and others in the eastern states. The chief of these is the fact that if fuels are not managed then bushfires cannot be managed. If this lesson is forgotten another Dwellingup calamity is inevitable.
George Peet wrote with great force and conviction on the same theme with his comment in “Tempered by Fire”
The main cause of the disaster was not the lightning strikes nor the organisation but the mistake in allowing heavy fuels to accumulate over a large area. It was the heavy fuels that created the inferno. Never a truer word was spoken: “No fuel, no fire”.
Others including Des Donnelly, Gordon Styles and Ian Ferguson make the same point based on frustration and years of experience. For those who doubt the wisdom of this message I urge you to read and reflect on the statements of men whose experience, wisdom and capacity contributed significantly to the fact that no lives were lost during the Dwellingup fires.
I want to reflect briefly on the quintessential Australian character which is there in abundance in this book.
The bush wisdom of district forester Archie Hancock when he directed a young George Peet to pick up the Nanga bush boss and his crew and take them to the fire. Archie simply said to him
“These are very experienced bushmen and firefighters. Don’t try telling them what to do. Just tell the Bush Boss what the job is and leave him to do it.”
The humour from Les Newman describing his mother surviving his sister-in-law’s driving on the way to Busselton after the fires. Mrs Newman’s eyes were so badly affected from the fire that she couldn’t see. Les’ view is that the highest risk to his mother was not the Dwellingup fires but his sister-in-law’s erratic driving.
Or Arthur Holland after describing the horrific events surrounding the fire relates the story of Mr Ernie Budd in Head Office at the end of January demanding that all work journals be completed without delay or their pay would be docked! After a few beers, they all saw the irony of the situation.
And the story of Ted Cracknell after being sent back to the now deserted Holyoake, heard the plaintive cry of what appeared to be a child only to find a Major Mitchell cockatoo in its cage. He saved the cocky, brought it back to Dwellingup and looked after it until the owner was located. The bloody cocky attacked Ted at every opportunity, no doubt blaming him for causing the fires in the first place.
There are many who are no longer with us but the person I would love to have met is Ted Loud. In his chapter, Frank Batini explained that Ted, their overseer, had been a commando during WW11 who spent 18 months behind enemy lines in Timor harassing the Japanese before being evacuated.
Eminent foresters who came under Ted’s influence included Roger Underwood, Jack Bradshaw, Don Keene, George Matthiessen, Terry Court, Frank Batini and my own long term personal friend Barney White. One can only wonder what impact Loud must have had on these men who went on to cast such a long shadow over forestry, forest management and bushfire control in our State.
Frank relates Ted’s speech to a group of them on their way to Dwellingup and the fires:
“There are women and children’s lives at stake here. If I catch any of you young bastards sitting on your arse, you won’t sit down for a month. I promise.”
In his chapter relating to the Crowea fires in the Pemberton area a month later in February 1961, Roger Underwood spoke of
“[Ted being] tough, demanding and intimidating. He regarded his gang of students as hopeless novices, and gave us intensive training in fire line construction using slashers and shovels, mopping up with shovels and cutting logs with axes and cross- cut saws. But it was as well that Ted put us through this disciplined training as in the subsequent weeks we were fighting real fires on a regular basis. Ted’s army style training methods stood us in good stead”
How things have changed. During the Senate inquiry into bushfires in Australia in 2010, for which I was responsible, I asked Professor Kanowski from the Fenner School of Forestry at Canberra’s ANU how many hours each student must complete as a member of a fire crew actively engaged in suppression before they completed their course. The answer was
“We do not require it formally because if we require it formally it has a whole range of other consequences in the curriculum structure but we encourage students strongly to do that.”
In other words, there is no formal requirement. It is possible these days for a student to complete a degree as a professional forester having never fought a bushfire.
How far have we regressed from the days of 1961? These graduates will be the next generation of land managers responsible for protecting communities, built assets, the natural resource asset and wildlife of our country!
I return to the character and camaraderie of people within the Forest Department which was captured in the writing of Frank Campbell when commenting on his colleague Bruce Beggs. Bruce had previously been the Divisional Forest Officer in Dwellingup and had recently transferred to Manjimup.
Frank reports that Bruce came back to Dwellingup and took over control from him on Sunday 22nd January after four harrowing days. Frank writes in the book:
“I believe Bruce’s leadership, judgement and experience, as well as that of the staff and employees at the fires were the primary reason there was no loss of life”
Frank was the Incident Controller, a formidable leader in an extraordinary event and yet he selflessly found praise for those who worked along side him.
I want to reflect on the bravery and wisdom of so many women whose actions contributed significantly to the outcome of the Dwellingup fires.
In his chapter, Gordon Styles made special mention of the invaluable contribution by Merle Dearle who saved many lives and homes through her actions within the community. In Gordon’s words:
“She was an unsung hero. She went all around the forestry settlement as the fire was approaching telling those inside to shut and seal their doors and windows. I believe this is what saved many houses and the occupants from ember attack.”
Gloria Willmott gave a moving account of her mother Chris Warren’s sense of calm and competence in guiding two aged parents, six children and the family dog to safety under horrific conditions.
They stayed trying to save their home but, when this was impossible, Mrs Warren moved them out and assembled them all in a drain covered by wet blankets as their only protection.
Can you imagine the scene as Gloria describes it in her chapter:
“Houses were exploding, parked cars burning, the forestry office ablaze, exploding fuel drums and the air thick with burning flying debris, the oppressive heat and the tremendous roar of the fire”.
None of us was afraid. We had complete faith in the way Mum calmly went about the task of looking after us. This inspired us to behave the same way.”
I want to conclude with some observations which can be regarded as miraculous, an example of divine intervention or just good luck.
Elizabeth Savell reflected on the fact no one was killed despite sheets of corrugated iron and exploding fuel drums swirling dangerously through the heavy haze of smoke filled air.
Dave Joynson’s graphic description of an old couple who refused to leave their home at Holyoake and who he had to forcibly assist into his car to get them to safety. The fact that he reached Holyoake at all in the face of horrific fires was miraculous.
Des Donnelly described his incident with Jack Dearle in saving an old couple. Jack managed to get a car started but, with zero visibility, ran it into a ditch. Miraculously the fire went over the top of them and they escaped without harm.
Peg Blanning explained how a wall of fire was headed straight for Banksiadale when the wind suddenly changed direction by 90° and the town was spared.
Ian Ferguson reflected how someone tried to make a run for it and drive through the fire to Pinjarra. The ute and all its occupants would surely have been incinerated. Luckily they had a flat tyre on the edge of town, were directed back to the football oval and all were saved.
And finally a remarkable event when Rona Gibbings described how she drove an overheated van down to Pinjarra with a red light glowing on the dashboard. So that her children would not be frightened, she put a finger over the red light. When they arrived in Pinjarra she asked someone to look at the vehicle. The engine was clearly cooked and, in his words, the van should have blown up.
Ladies and gentlemen this book is compelling reading. “Tempered by Fire” is a unique collection of stories and a record of a major fire that not only impacted heavily on the Western Australian community at that time but has had a profound effect on policy and practice throughout the country and the world ever since.
I compliment Roger Underwood and the Bushfire Front for their forethought in producing it. The fact that the whole project was undertaken in four months is testament to the wonderful contribution of so many people.
It is my job and that of others in State and Federal parliaments to ensure the lessons are never forgotten. It is your job, Roger, and that of your colleagues, to make sure we are kept up to the mark. I assure you, this is not the “last roll of the dice”. It is for every one of us to ensure the lessons of Dwellingup and the 1961 fire season are never forgotten.
These fires are now part of the social legend of our State. We honour those who were part of it.
Could I ask those of you who were in Dwellingup and its surrounding districts during the fires and indeed those who were involved in other catastrophic bushfires in the southwest of W. A. during the summer of 1960/61 to stand up? You deserve recognition by all of us for the role you played and what you have carried through these 50 years.
I have great pleasure in launching the book “Tempered by Fire”.