It was a typical hot summer January day as my brothers, and I, splashed around and cooled off in the Swimming Pool adjacent to the Kiosk at the “Gorge Caravan Park”. We’d been exploring the bush for days, having fun on the “swinging bridge”, paddling in the creek and then back to the caravan for a good old “nosh up”. It was an idyllic holiday and there was no sign of the approaching danger, and terror, which would remain indelibly imprinted on my 8 year old brain forever.
The first sign that anything was amiss was when mum and dad came over to check on us and to enquire, at the Kiosk, as to why so many people were packing up and leaving. Never will I forget the look of horror on my mum’s face when they found the Kiosk locked and abandoned. Hurrying back to the caravan and turning on the portable radio the terrible reality dawned. Unbeknowns to my parents a bushfire warning had gone out, our camping ground was now surrounded by raging fires, and it was too dangerous to try and flee the flames.
Although they must have been terrified my parents calmly sat the four of us down, explained the situation and advised that we needed to “stay put” until the fire had been extinguished and it was safe to go home… however, we were told to keep close together and if dad gave the signal we were to run down to the adjacent creek and immerse ourselves in the water until he said it was safe to come out. Although nearly “scared out of my wits” my dad made me feel as safe as anyone could be, under the circumstances.
It was so hot, and stuffy, in the caravan that night as we tried to sleep with the smell of smoke in our nostrils and the glow of the surrounding fire lighting up the night sky. Eventually I dozed off and was awakened by a weird noise and felt a HUGE bump and the caravan began shaking until I was sure it would fall over. Dad leapt out of bed and out of the door “as quick as Jack Flash”. It turned out to be just a poor old terrified cow who’d stumbled against the van and was causing a lot of “ruckus”.
The next I remember is that it’s morning and mum and dad saying the fires were out and it was safe to go home. I later learnt that the bushfire had been contained only because of a fortunate change of weather and the work of some 2.500 volunteers who’d responded to the desperate call for help. As we drove that 30kms back to the safety of the Adelaide CBD, I will never forget the blackened bushland and the devastated countryside we passed through. Sight, and smells, I never want to experience again.
On the South Australian Professional Historians website, Alison Painter has written:
“The 2 January 1955 is known in South Australia as ‘Black Sunday’. Terrible bushfires swept through the Adelaide Hills, blackening 600 square miles of coluntry from One Tree Hill in the north to Strathalbyn in the south. Forty homes were lost as well as many other buildings including the Upper Sturt railway station and Marble Hill, the Governor’s summer residence on Norton Summit.
On that hot weekend the Governor, Sir Robert George, and his family went to stay at Marble Hill. By Sunday afternoon the smoke and heat showed that the fire was very near and in spite of the efforts of the staff with garden hoses the building suddenly caught alight. The family and staff narrowly escaped by throwing wet blankets over themselves. They huddled near a bank as the elegant old home burnt fiercely and the tower collapsed at the height of the blaze. Since then the impressive ruins have been partly restored by the National Trust but the Governors have never returned.
There was great loss of property and stock in the fires in the hills and in the south east, but only one man died, at Inglewood. Until the Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 this was the worst bushfire in the State’s history.
Advertiser, 3, 4, 5 January 1955. “
The South Australian CFS (Country Fire Service) reports that:
“Two fire fighters lost their lives and damage, spread over a total area of at least 40,000 hectares, was estimated at $4,000,000.”
The Australian Bureau of Metereology explains:
“The nature of the Australian environment – long periods of dry, hot weather and volatile natural vegetation – makes many parts of the country particularly vulnerable to fire. Southeastern Australia has the reputation of being one of the three most fire-prone areas in the world, along with southern California and southern France. The Black Friday fires in 1939 in Victoria, Ash Wednesday (1983) in Victoria and South Australia and the 1967 fires in Tasmania, have each killed in excess of 60 Australians. They loom as dark shadows in the consciousness of residents of these states on summer days when strong northerlies, extreme heat and low humidity follow a long dry period. Throughout the 20th Century, many other fires have claimed lives, destroyed people’s homes and livelihoods, and reduced thousands of hectares of forest to charcoal and ash.”
Once again the “bushfire season” is upon us as the temperatures soar into the 40’s and are set to remain there for some time. May all who live in bushfire prone areas and those fire fighters, and volunteers, who risk their lives for others keep themselves safe and well.
To those who’ve lost loved ones, property and livelihoods in previous bushfires… may you be blessed and comforted as the memories return along with the scorching heat. My childhood terrors, of 58 years ago, are nothing in comparison.
RESOURCES (including photos) and FURTHER READING:
Copyright © 2013. Catherine Ann Crout-Habel.