Speech Transcript for the 50th Anniversary of Tasmanian Fires February 7, 1967
I was 10 years old on the morning of February 7th, 1967. It was my brother Marty’s 9th birthday, he -i.e. that is WE – had received a bunch of great pressies from our Mum in Sydney but we had to head off to school and did not get a chance to play with that model plane, corgi cars and I don’t remember what else.
That was the last time we ever saw those toys.
It seems like such a long time ago, in fact it is a long time ago. 50 years today. Hard to believe. Back then my brother and I lived with our Nan and Pop, Aileen and Bill Grace, in a home in Tiers Road built from the timber salvaged from the original Snug Hall, along with a close-knit community of perhaps 25 houses, our neighbors. Our house was big, rambling and full of love and laughter. Our farm, now covered by a housing estate, went all the way from Snug Tiers Rd down to a creek full of trout, eels and platypus, and had soil so rich you could eat it. We had a dozen willow trees in the house yard, including one out the front with a tree house in it, the same tree house from which the Honorable councilor David Grace once urinated on his teacher as he was walking home.
The fences were overgrown with blackberries, the hills were thickly timbered with massive trees, and the town itself was the best place in the world to grow up in. We loved everything about our town. Except for the carbide dust. That was everywhere.
On that particular February morning the dust was very thick in the air. So was the smoke. I remember as we walked down the road to school it being a very very hot day. Not Tasmanian at all. The playground was filled with scattery, worked up kids. There is no doubt we all sensed that the day was a strange one. Sometime around lunchtime my brother and I were called up to the office. My uncle Tom – he was only 5 years older than me – had come to pick us up.
“You gotta come home” was all he said.
The sky by this stage was dark, so dark it felt like midnight, and the sun was a huge orange orb occasionally glimpsed through the smoke. I will never forget that smell of smoke, and the air itself seemed to buzz. There was a lot of ash falling and whirling about. As the 3 of us walked up Tiers Road it felt like we were walking into Hell. And I was not even old enough to know what Hell looked like!!
Poppy Grace had the car – it was a Holden, we were a Holden family – parked in the drive, it was ready to go. I don’t think he had packed anything at all, everything was happening so quickly. By this stage it was absolutely pitch black along our road and you could hear a roar, this incredible roar, almost like a train, but continuous. I looked up to the top of the Snug Tiers behind Sproule’s farm and could see the fire front glowing just to the other side of the crest. That must have been 5 or so kilometers away. On the right the hills behind Burnaby’s farm seemed untouched, the giant trees in darkness. On the left, way up behind Rifle Range Road and the Falls the flames were on top of the hills and the trees were exploding, you could see the crowns literally being devoured instantaneously. I have fought a lot of fires since with the army and SES but I never experienced anything like it.
Pop said he was going down to check on the cattle, I have no idea what he thought he was going to do with the poor buggers. He must have walked less than 50 metres away when we suddenly realized that the fire was actually burning the scrub just opposite our drive. It had literally jumped more than a kilometer in the same time that he had walked that distance. The heat was incredible and it was the first time I realized how serious this all was. We SCREAMED at Pop, I mean SCREAMED. You had to, just to be heard. He turned and ran back to us, telling us to get in the car. My Pop was the strongest, bravest man I have known but his face was absolutely terrified at that moment. As he reversed the vehicle we were literally backing into flames, the fire was completely surrounding us. The last thing I remember of that moment is looking across to the house next to our place and seeing the owners standing on their front porch, their home enveloped in flame and smoke. I thought they were dead. I thought we were going to die.
Pop drove the car down the road to the junction of Tiers Road and Channel Highway, trying to get down to the beach. The shop and servo across the road were already in flames, the church on the other corner also in flames. The air itself seemed to be burning and the smoke and ash were everywhere. The only way you could see by this stage was by the light given off from these huge flames burning down our town.
We managed to get inside the school, there was nowhere else to go, Beach Road looked like a wall of fire and we were going no further.
Let me just stop here and explain something, something that only just occurred to me when I came back to Tassy after 30 years away and saw the memorial to the dead for the first time. I remembered none of these things, except for that sight of the hills on fire, until the day when I came back and stood here. And then I began to remember what had happened, it came flooding back so that now I can even smell that day. It seems that much of the actual experience had been buried so deep I could barely remember anything. I guess it was like PTSD.
Inside the school it was like a war zone, there were people sitting or lying everywhere, mainly in the corridors of the main brick part of the Upper School. I remember seeing injured people and hearing them sob and moan, but I guess we were shielded from the worst of it. There must have been half the town in that school – in fact, the other half were in the water down at the beach – completely surrounded by the raging fires with nowhere to go. Through the windows you could watch the town, the landscape, even the very air being consumed by fire. It was like nothing you can imagine, unless you have experienced a total firestorm. I have often smiled grimly to myself when I hear the term “Fight or Flee” now being suggested by authorities during a bushfire. Let me tell you that NOTHING could have survived outside that day in Snug, you had to be in the water, in an untouched building or in another State. Later we found out that the school building itself was on fire, a lot of it ended up a burnt out shell, while our old wooden school rooms in the junior school were destroyed completely. Somehow we survived. I guess the fires took everything we had to offer and moved on to the next town, God help them. It had felt like hours had passed, it really did. But I think the firestorm lasted no more than 10 or 15 minutes. In its wake we had lost our homes, our possessions, our security. But others had lost much more, they had lost their lives and their loved ones.
The one that has stuck in my mind all these years is Mrs Gibbs. She had a lot of kids, some of whom were my school mates. We heard how she had tried to outrun the fire, got caught in a barbed wire fence and was killed. I don’t know why, but even at the age of 10 that struck me as tragic and awful, and I have always wondered what happened to all her children. I used to see her running in my nightmares. To this day I still climb OVER fences and never through them.
All up we lost 11 people in Snug and a way of life that would never be the same again. All those old homes would be replaced by knocked up weatherboard houses, built as quickly and as cheaply as possible. Snug would never be as cute as it was before that day in 1967 and I still find it lacks what I remember so fondly. But it will always be like that in my memory.
Miracles and strange things did happen that day too. Our neighbors and their house survived, against all odds. Old houses painted blue survived while brick houses on either side blew apart. My Uncle David Grace was trapped in an orchard fighting that fire and somehow survived. My Aunty and Uncle, the Wallaces and their children – my cousins – survived in one of the most remote areas up in the Margate Tiers, at the very end of Nierinna Road. How I do not know. It was a very strange day to say the least.
After the fires we lived on the footy ground for a year or so in 2 or 3 caravans, the family was that big. The army whacked up big tents and we were invited to take whatever toys, clothes and food from the massive piles of donations the people of this great country and State so generously sent to our aid. Phil the Greek, the Duke of Edinburgh, came to visit our town and our caravans, Marty and I even got to share a cup of tea with him. I remember my Nan and Pop were a bit overwhelmed with the royalty part, but he was a nice bloke, and shocked by what he had seen.
It was all a bit like Christmas, just not quite the same when you share a caravan with 10 other people during a freezing cold winter. There was no Christmas roast on a table your grandfather had built in a home your father and his 10 brothers and sisters had grown up in. And, worst of all, there were no family photographs or mementoes sitting around on the mantle piece and on top of furniture, things that make a house a home. They had all gone up in a wisp of smoke, or melted into pools of unrecognizable metal and glass and plastic, scattered amongst the charred brickwork and timber of something that could never truly be replaced.
We lost everything that day, but we still had our family who drifted back into our lives over the following days and weeks, no one had been hurt or killed, a few like my uncles David, Nigel and my Old Man were heroes, spending days fighting the fires that continued to burn themselves out. Things can be replaced, rebuilt, remade, maybe not the same, but close. Snug was slowly rebuilt and I guess life returned to normal, eventually. As the years passed the bush regrew, towns started to look like they had been there forever, and people forgot what had happened. But if you look closely up in the Snug Tiers you will see the dead carcasses of forest giants that did not survive February 7th, 1967. You will also see the remains of mountain houses and farms that once existed as family homes, standing in small clearings where cattle and sheep once grazed. These silent monuments are now surrounded by more and more houses, built in secluded and lovely patches of bush, trying to live quiet, lovely lives in this most beautiful part of our Tassy.
For those who survived that day 50 years ago we should need no reminder of what nature can do, we should never forget the darkness, the smoke, the heat, the power and the sheer ferocity of uncontained bushfire, a firestorm that consumed the very air we were breathing.
But, we do have a responsibility to describe, as best we can, what happened, and remind those who were not here to never take what we have for granted and to never take the power of nature for granted.
We all owe it to the people who are remembered here today, and to future generations. May the events of February 7th, 1967 never be forgotten, nor repeated.