Lessons From 1961

Lessons from the 1961 bushfires: a note on Western Australia’s Great Teaching Event

Bushfire Front January 2011


In the cruel summer of 1960/61, over a half a million hectares was burned by bushfires in the southern part of the State.  It has since been termed “the year Western Australia burned”.

The tragic bushfires in south-western Western Australia that year were mostly started by lightning. It was a summer in which hot, unstable conditions in the south-west interacted with cyclones in the north-west, the result being a series of intense lightning storms that peppered the forest regions.

Western Australia had a well-developed professionally led forestry organisation in the south-west at that time. Most of the fires were successfully contained within hours of ignition. However, the fires burning in heavy fuels could not be controlled before high temperatures and cyclonic winds struck. The result was disaster. Hundreds of people suffered calamity. Four towns – Dwellingup, Holyoake, Karridale and Nanga Brook were razed to the ground. Hundreds of thousands of hectares of beautiful forest and valuable farmland and millions of dollars-worth of community assets were lost or damaged. Many survivors have suffered deep psychological trauma to this day.

The intensity of the fires and their rate of spread were mostly immeasurable. At their height the fires “crowned”, spreading from tree top to tree top, and throwing spotfires kilometers downwind. The result was that the fire fronts continuously leap-frogged the desperate efforts of firefighters. Again and again, it was necessary to pull out, regroup, and start the attack on a whole new front.

The main crisis at Dwellingup lasted five days, but there were mini-crises for weeks afterwards. These were followed by new and catastrophic fires in the Pemberton, Shannon River and the Margaret River-Augusta regions.

The Bushfire Front has recently published a book of stories about the human aspects of these fires (see Tempered by Fire above). The stories are written by people who were there at the time, and became caught up in the tragic events either as firefighters or as fire survivors. They provide moving insights into the first-hand emotions, the stress, and the courage and resilience of those involved.

Readers will see the book as an important tribute to the human spirit and a valuable contribution to Western Australian history. But it is more than that; the stories also stimulate us to refocus on the lessons learned in that unprecedented summer of drama and tragedy.


The “Great Teaching Event”

Bushfire specialists have an unofficial name for the 1961 fires: they were The Great Teaching Event for bushfire authorities in Western Australia. They were a watershed. After the fires, failed approaches and outmoded technologies were abandoned. In their wake, new ones were developed and adopted. Within a decade of its worst bushfire disaster, Western Australia became a world leader in bushfire management.

A question and answer

Surely, it might be legitimately asked, are not the events of 1961 “old hat”? How can bushfires that occurred half a century ago still be relevant? Surely firefighting and other technology has improved so much since 1961 that lessons from a bushfire 50 years ago no longer apply.

There are two simple responses to these questions:

1. Yes, the new technology is wonderful by 1961 standards, but the most fundamental difficulty faced by firefighters 50 years ago remains unchanged. In 2011 as in 1961, humans are still powerless in the face of bushfires burning under extreme weather conditions in heavy forest fuels. The Black Saturday bushfires in Victoria in 2009 demonstrate this dramatically: despite having fire fighting technology equal to the most sophisticated in the world, Victorian firefighters found these fires unstoppable. Bushfires in WA over the last 5 years burning in heavy fuels and fanned by strong winds have been equally unstoppable until they ran into low fuels or the weather changed.

2. Unfortunately, and remarkable to report, this fundamental lesson has been forgotten, or is today denied even by people in authority, who continue to seek technological solutions to a problem that technology, so far, has never been able to solve.

Improved technology

As in all endeavours, progress in bushfire management occurs continuously in the light of research and practical experience. Fire detection has been greatly improved, with spotter aircraft supplementing lookout towers. Water bombing aircraft are now available in many areas, and they greatly assist in the control of small fires burning under mild weather conditions. Fire tankers have been modernized and helicopters are available for dropping water on fire edges and lighting unburnt pockets within containment lines. Fire organisation and management systems have been upgraded to ensure better cooperation and communication between fire fighting agencies and more efficient deployment of resources.

Radio and telephone communication, which were primitive or non-existent in 1961, have greatly improved.

Without doubt, our government and volunteer firefighters have never been better equipped.


The downsides

 However, while technology has improved, other important factors have deteriorated.

In 1961 the Forests Department was the sole agency responsible for the protection and conservation of southwest forests. Today, forests are a minor part of the responsibility of the Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC), whose other roles include marine parks, environmental and wildlife protection, tourism and national parks throughout Western Australia. The Forests Department had twice as many personnel with bushfire experience as does DEC today, and the bulk of those people were stationed in the forest, living in south-west towns like Dwellingup and Manjimup.

Experienced fire fighting leaders and fire-savvy frontline staff with local knowledge can never be replaced by technology. Competent leadership and experienced decision-making remains crucial, but the people with these qualities are getting thinner on the ground every year.

To sum up the problem: while the number of experienced bushfire personnel has gone down, the area of parks, forests and reserves managed by the department, and the values to be protected, have increased substantially. The bushfire threat has probably tripled. 

None of this is made easier by the fact that in 1961, the department could call on a substantial backup force of hundreds of timber workers and logging crews, most of whom were experienced bushmen and firefighters. This force, and its equipment, has virtually disappeared in the last 15 years (as a direct result of government policy).

Another factor needs to be considered. The rural districts bordering State Forests in 1961 had access to bushfire brigades who in those days mostly comprised farmers with long, first-hand bushfire experience. They were happy to undertake fuel reduction by burning or grazing their bushland areas.

Today, the fire-wise farmers of yesteryear are being replaced by ex-city people living on hobby farms, lifestyle blocks or in semi-rural subdivisions scattered within or along the edges of the forest reserves. To their credit, these people often join or support their local bushfire brigade, but they do not have the tough resilience, the hard-won experience and bush skills of the country men and women of former times. They have not, as the saying goes, been “tempered by fire”. And they have established millions of dollars-worth of fire-vulnerable infrastructure within or at the very the edge of the bush.

To make matters worse, there has been an expansion of rural industries who oppose responsible bushfire management, for example wine-makers and tourism operators who are unable to understand the trade-off between short-term impacts of mild intensity fuel reduction burning and the crippling damage caused by high intensity wildfire.

Nor has the challenge of extreme bushfire weather declined. Western Australia continues to experience a hot, dry summer every year. Indeed, some people believe it is getting hotter and drier, thanks to declining rainfall and longer summer drought drying out bushland fuels.


The fundamental message

Crown fires in eucalypt forest remain as unstoppable today as they have ever been.  Once a bushfire is burning through the tops of the trees and throwing a jet-stream of burning embers down-wind, there is no technology on this earth that will stop it.

Water bombers do a great job under favourable conditions, but they cannot operate under high winds, or at night or when thick smoke reduces visibility. 

During the Black Saturday fires in Victoria, water bombers and helicopters had to be grounded because of the high winds around the fires. In 1961 the towns of Dwellingup, Holyoake and Nanga Brook all burnt at night when water bombers, even if they been available, could not have operated.


Where is the leadership?

Western Australia’s Fire and Emergency Services Authority (FESA) is a prime example of a government agency who has forgotten or who deny the lessons of the 1961 bushfires. They put far too much faith in the new technology, and brand those who warn of its inadequacies as “yesterday’s men”.

But if FESA disregards the lessons of 1961, then at least they should take note of the current lessons from the United States. American firefighters can call on hundreds of ex-military aircraft converted for water or fire retardant dropping and can muster thousands of professional firefighters overnight, equipped with fleets of the most modern high-powered fire tankers. Yet this force is powerless in the face of crown fires throwing spotfires. The massive US firefighting force has failed year after year to protect lives, homes, properties and forest from bushfire devastation. Their own authorities now admit that a fire policy based on trying to control fires after they start will always fail when they are facing the deadly combination of extreme fire weather and fires burning in heavy fuels.


Fuel Reduction Burning – the missing element

After the 1961 bushfires a revised and expanded program of fuel reduction burning, based on the measurement of over 300 experimental fires, was introduced throughout WA’s south-west forests and on privately owned bushland. The benefits were enormous: large “killer” bushfires were avoided. Parallel research programs demonstrated that feared environmental consequences of burning did not eventuate; indeed bushland where periodic fuel reduction burning has taken place is invariably healthier and more beautiful than that in areas long unburnt, or areas incinerated in a wildfire.

Unfortunately fuel reduction burning is opposed by environmentalists, and its value is denied or under-rated by others, even including senior people in government. This opposition has led to fuel reduction programs being abandoned, cut back or maintained at an ineffective level. The critics of fuel reduction tend to be ‘arm-chair experts’ from Perth’s inner suburbs who have no personal experience of fire, and are not themselves threatened by fire, but are prepared to sacrifice those who are.

With admirable resolve, DEC has maintained a fuel reduction burning program in south-west forests. However, the amount of burning and its frequency have declined significantly over the last 15 years, as DEC has found itself hamstrung with constraints and with few friends in government, the media or the community.

As a result, in many parts of the south-west today, fuel levels are higher than they were in 1961. This is the direct result of failed leadership from government, egged on by environmental ideologists or by those with supreme over-confidence in suppression technology.


Conclusion: the key lessons

 So although fifty years have passed since the 1961 fire, the fundamentals of fire and land management have not changed. It is therefore timely to review the lessons learned, and to remind the State’s bushfire authorities, land managers and land owners of what is required of them.


These key lessons are:

1. The crown fires that occurred at Dwellingup, Pemberton, Karridale and elsewhere that summer only came to ground and could be effectively controlled in areas where the bushfire fuels were five years old or younger. Without fuel reduction, fire fighting under extreme weather conditions always failed in the past and will always fail in the future.

 2. Fuel reduction is not a “one-off” but must be maintained year in and year out. In 1961, even in five-year old fuels, the high winds resulted in fires that outran the suppression effort, and fires were lost unless there was more recent burning in their path. Fortunately the damage caused by fires in five-year old fuels was insignificant compared with that from fires in long unburnt forest.

 3. Spot fire development, as a result of burning brands carried down-wind ahead of the main fire, is always worse in long-unburnt, heavy fuels. This is especially true for jarrah forest, because long-unburnt jarrah trees accumulate dry, stringy, flammable bark on their trunks that is readily ignited by sparks, and then whipped aloft under high winds. Reducing fuels reduces spotting and spotting is what makes firefighting efforts futile.

 4. Up until 1961, firefighters using traditional suppression methods had successfully controlled summer fires for many years under average summer conditions, including periodic lightning storms. However, heatwaves, recurring thunderstorms and multiple fires beat the firefighters, exactly as all firefighters will always be beaten under these conditions unless something is done about fuel levels before the fire to tip the odds in their favour.

 5. Humans cannot control the temperature, or the strength of the wind. We cannot stop lightning strikes or dictate when and where they strike. We know that powerlines and arsonists will cause fires, but no-one can predict when and where this will occur. All we know is that fire ignition, high temperatures and strong winds are an inevitable part of summer in Western Australia. The only thing that can be done to give firefighters any chance under extreme conditions is to reduce bushland fuels. Jarrah forest fuels should be kept less than 8 tonnes per hectare, which equates to a 5-7 year burning cycle, and karri forests less than 12 tonnes per hectare, which equates to an 8-10 year burning cycle.

 6. In the forest country, fuel reduction burning must be planned so that the areas with light fuels run in long contiguous east-west strips (if possible) to counter the blow-up conditions which nearly always occur with north-east or north-westerly winds. Strips must be at least 2-3 kilometers wide, to minimise outflanking and throw-over by spotfires. Narrow (200-500 metre wide) strips are useless under extreme conditions.

 7. Only if there is a planned patchwork of fuel reduced areas across the forest, will firefighters have any hope of stopping the run of a big fire on a bad day, or of dealing effectively with multiple simultaneous lightning strikes.

 8. Private land owners must take responsibility for their own fuels; they cannot rely on firefighters turning up, especially when there are multiple simultaneous fires as a result of lightning (or arson) under extreme conditions. Private bushland should be burnt under mild conditions at least every 7-10 years or grazed to keep down grassy fuels. A broad fuel-free area must be maintained around houses in rural areas. FESA and Local Government Authorities must promote fuel reduction and take legal action against those land owners who refuse to act responsibly.

 9. Evacuation of people in the path of a fire must be done early, giving them a chance to shelter in places which will not burn, like the town football oval, or in buildings that can be defended by able firefighters. A combination of incoming fire trucks and fleeing citizenry on narrow roads as a fire approaches is a recipe for tragedy.

 10. After the 1961 fires, governments, agencies and fire authorities showed that they were prepared to take bold decisions, and to see them through. They were not daunted by the opposition of ill-informed and impractical critics. This determined approach is required again today, with government leaders committing to effective programs of fuel reduction burning under mild conditions, so as to minimise the damage caused by high intensity bushfires. It is essential that the State government provides strong support for DEC’s fuel reduction programs, and instructs FESA to give far more emphasis to promoting, encouraging and enforcing high levels of bushfire preparedness and prevention.


So, we leave readers with a grave message. If the lessons from the 1961 bushfire disasters are forgotten or are denied, then the suffering, the losses and the costs will all have been in vain.

Then, as the wise philosopher Santayana said “Those who cannot remember the past will be condemned to repeat it.”



 A mild-intensity fuel reduction burn in wandoo forest, Western Australia:

the key to effective bushfire management.