Wilsons Prom bushfire – 1951.

In early February 1951 a couple of small fires were burning unchecked near Yanakie, at the northern end of Wilsons Promontory National Park.

One was believed to have escaped from a campfire left unattended at Tin Pot Waterhole which was outside the northern boundary of the park.

They had been burning for almost three weeks, and in the words of one observer “the fires were not serious”.

But as the summer weather and hot northerly winds intensified one of the fires swept into the park and through the scrub and heathland towards the southwest.

The fire destroyed the remnants of the cattle fence on the northern boundary of the park along the way.

The fire was driven by a strong gale along the Vereker Range towards the lighthouse, a distance of approximately 22 miles, and was only halted by the ocean.

On Tuesday 13 February, at about 6 a.m., the bushfire began to burn like a wick along the small rocky peninsula towards the exposed lighthouse station.

The last radio message from the lighthouse was picked up by chance. Normally, all Bass Strait lighthouses communicated with each other by radio in the morning at 8.30 a.m. However, the light keeper at Gabo Island tuned his set 10 minutes earlier and heard the dramatic description of the fire by the Promontory wireless man, who stayed at his post to the last. His final message was just before the radio shack exploded into flames…  “It is getting too hot to stay here any longer!”

There were grave fears for the safety of the lighthouse staff on the windswept headland jutting out into the sea at the remote and southernmost tip of mainland Australia.

Personnel at the settlement were the acting head light keeper, two light-keepers, two workmen, one with his wife and child, and three employees of the Department of Works and Housing. The retiring head lightkeeper Mr Fred Banks, was at the settlement with his wife and son, packing his belongings ready for the lighthouse steamer to call.

Showing great courage while beating back the flames, the families huddled in a brick outbuilding as the fire swirled through the lighthouse settlement. Luckily, nobody was killed or seriously injured, although two men were slightly burned, and Fred Banks had a mild heart attack.

But the fire caused £40,000 worth of damage to six buildings, including three of its five homes and other installations including the rocket shed full of explosives, the petrol store, the wireless shack with its telescopes, binoculars and maps, and phone lines. The crane was spared but jetty along with a quarter mile of access ropeway used for transporting supplies from the bottom on the Promontory’s hazardous cliffs to the lighthouse, hundreds of feet above was also destroyed.

The wife of one of the lighthouse keepers, Mrs Margaret Garreau, was shaken by the ordeal but reported that it had rained at about 8.30 a.m. not long after the fire arrived.

A RAAF plane left East Sale at 11.30 a.m. to attempt to communicate with the staff, and an oil tanker proceeded to the lighthouse from Bass Strait. Earlier, the Department of Civil Aviation asked Trans Australian Airlines (TAA) to divert a plane over the lighthouse.

All the signal flags on the reserve were burnt but Mrs Garreau made a makeshift flag from bunting to signal to the circling aircraft.

Newspapers reported that later in the day the fishing launch Stella Maris reached the lighthouse to take off the women and children, but they decided to stay with their menfolk.

The day after, the lighthouse engineer, Mr. E. L. Ault, sailed 35 miles to the lighthouse from Port Albert and reported that the facility was out of danger. He had been unable to find a doctor to go with him.

The famous stone lighthouse, which was built in 1859 and lit by kerosene, remained miraculously unscathed and continued to work normally after the fire.

At least 75,000 acres—almost three quarters of the entire National Park—had been thoroughly burned. The ecological impact was massive and long term.

There was the usual political posturing after the bushfire with the Victorian Minister for Transport saying the Federal Government would have been to blame had there been fatalities because Canberra had refused to make a special grant available to complete a road to the lighthouse.

There were very few tracks and firefighting appliances at the time but a relatively small bushfire in the previous summer of 1949–50 had caused the park managers to press on with their track clearing program.

It was reported that sixty campers, including eight children, narrowly escaped when the bushfire trapped them at Tidal River Camping Ground. They huddled together in a small clearing while the fire roared past on all sides towards the lighthouse, 14 miles away.

But Chief Ranger, John Sparkes, later discounted the danger to the Tidal River settlement and the campers as “ridiculous rot” because he had burned firebreaks around the camp in the previous year. But some question this assessment and say the Tidal River was only spared because of the direction of the winds.

The fire protection and suppression responsibility for Wilsons Promontory National Park, which at the time was administered by a Committee of Management as “Occupied Crown Land” under the Lands Act, was complex and confused.

Reg Torbet — Chief Fire Officer of the Forests Commission, and seasoned specialist in fire prevention and control — joined the Committee in 1950 to provide guidance. But some believed that it wasn’t so much advice that was needed but cash for on-ground fire protection works.  Reg Torbet died in 1956 and his place was taken by Bob Seaton.

It’s interesting to note that the Wilsons Promontory fire doesn’t even rate a mention in the Forests Commission’s 1950-51 annual report because it wasn’t under their direct jurisdiction. However, the Chairman of the Commission, Finton Gerraty, backed calls for greater coordination of fire protection on National Parks.

There was justifiable public and political outcry in the wake of the Wilsons Promontory fire, which ultimately led to new National Parks Legislation being passed in October 1956.

The National Parks Bill aligned with a major revision of both the Forests Act and Country Fire Authority Act in 1958 which clearly enshrined the role of the two agencies and the Chief Fire Officers into complementary legislation.

The CFA took responsibility for fire suppression on “Country Victoria” leaving the Forests Commission to focus on the public land estate such as State forest and National Parks, which amounted for the remaining one third of the State.

More importantly, it shaped and cemented Victoria’s deep-seated approaches towards bushfires outside Melbourne for decades to come.

Both the Forests Commission and the CFA adopted clear policies to detect and suppress all bushfires and became very focused and skilled at doing it.

Posted on Facebook – 2 February 2022. https://www.facebook.com/groups/forestcommisionheritage/posts/7725787760780840/

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