Memories of Bushfires

by Alex Demby  

I was born on 30 January 1922. One of my first memories was of the 1926 fires. My mother told me that Mount St Leonard was ablaze. The bullockies used to burn off to get new growth of wild oats. She took me up near the Methodist Church one night, to see the many dry ash stags burning on Allison. It looked like candles, with the tops of the trees alight, dropping hot coals that lit up the sky.

My next memory of fires was of 1937 or 1938. My father asked me to carry a knapsack and my trusty Kelly axe. It was about 1.5 miles along the Stringybark Range Track to a dry tree that was burning at the top, close to the perimeter of a fire that had been burning the day before. Without a helmet, hot sparks fell on me while I cut down the tree, so that it fell into an already burnt area. I used all four gallons of water to dampen it down. It was a tough initiation.

My memories of the 1939 bushfires are still vivid. I was 16. We left home early morning on January 7. My father was in charge. We tried to stop the fire along the Old Slide Road. I remember a dry limb, falling from a tree that was burning, missed us by a few feet.

On Sunday 8 January my father was in charge of a party of ten men. Two Senior Forestry Commission Officers, John Barling and Reg Torbett, had joined our team. We left home early, with rakes, slashers and four or five knapsacks full of water. We were in two cars, one a new Chev. We couldn’t get close to the fire, so the cars were parked on a firebreak, two chains wide. We walked about one mile, uphill all the way. By now it was hot. We cut and raked a narrow track, ready for fire which was creeping uphill, against a strong northerly. We lit the backburn about 10:30am. All went well until a southerly change blew the fire over the break. My father said he was going to look for John Barling. I never saw my father again. When the bodies were found, on Monday 9 January, it was found that my father had been carrying John Barling. He was later honoured by the Royal Humane Society for his courage.

Back to the fire. It was burning with ferocity, running through the tops of trees above us and lighting around our feet. Two of the group wanted to go south and six north. The men asked me to run in front, to set the pace. With the wind behind us, the fire would have caught us if we had been going uphill. We ran some distance down a gully, with the fire only a few minutes behind us and we found a tram track that someone recognised. We followed it to Kitties[i] Creek and the Penrose home.[ii] Some were cooling their feet in the creek. We had travelled about 5 miles (8 kilometres) – I know the distance because I re-enacted it for a newspaper, in 1970. I heard a crackling. We formed a bucket brigade and saved the Penrose home. A fireball engulfed a paddock of about 20-30 acres, killing about 200 sheep. I remember the heat and suction. Sheets of iron, plus a white leg fowl, were sucked upwards.

After the fire passed, leaving everything black, someone took us to Miss Austin’s, of Austin Hospital. She made us a cup of tea and biscuits. I travelled back to Toolangi with Geoff Miller. He charged us ten shillings each. Mum and my sister Alice were upset when we arrived without Dad. The men who were with me were Alex Blackmore, Geoff Mitchell, Jack Monk, Cyril Shipp, Syd Biggs and George Biggs.

Dad’s funeral was at Healesville Cemetery, on Wednesday 11 January 1939. To get there we travelled via Mount Slide Road to Yarra Glen, because all the other roads were closed. Two days after the funeral the fire went through the cemetery grounds and all the beautiful floral tributes were burnt.

Transcribed 3/11/2002 by Chari Jolly



[i] Believed to mean Kitty Creek, now called Katy Creek

[ii] In Glenburn