History has shown that after each major bushfire, particularly if there has been a significant loss of life and property, there are vocal calls from affected communities and media commentators for State and Local Governments to stop further land subdivision, to apply restrictive building standards and buyback high-risk homes on the forest fringe.
The Black Saturday Royal Commission in 2009 was no exception and controversially recommended “retreat and resettlement” as a strategy to move people away from the urban/forest interface.
But the most notable and sustained buyback scheme commenced in the Dandenong Ranges after the 1962 bushfires which killed 33 people and destroyed more than 450 homes.
Areas of high fire risk such as the steep and exposed western face of the Dandenongs, just below the prominent TV towers, were identified. Conservation value was also an important criteria for purchase.
But the decision came with considerable heartache…
The buyback proved divisive with a mixture of voluntary and targeted acquisition which did not please everyone.
It was also complex and emotionally fraught with local District Foresters Jim Westcott, and later Frank May, often on the receiving end of residents anger and frustration over their broken dreams and fears of diminished property values.
Jim Westcott was later awarded an MBE in recognition of his service to conservation, fire protection and community affairs while in the Forests Commission.
While some left willingly, some residents simply refused to budge, but more deadly bushfires in 1968 strengthened the Government’s resolve.
Behind the scenes, Bill Borthwick who was the influential and well-respected local Member of State Parliament between 1960 and 1982, lobbied effectively to sustain momentum, focus and funding throughout his tenure.
The buyback program ended in about 1984, coinciding with a change of government, by which time it had quietly and patiently purchased thousands of vacant allotments and hundreds of family homes that were demolished, and the land reforested.
The only evidence today being the occasional broken brick or rogue garden plant.
The purchased land and its fire protection liability returned to public ownership, but the fragmentation of the private land interface adjoining State forest reduced as allotments were progressively consolidated. The Dandenong Ranges National Park was proclaimed in 1987.
Some significant and historic properties were procured including the magnificent Doongalla Estate at the foot of the Dandenongs earlier in 1950. The original mansion consisted of 32 rooms and was built in 1892 but was destroyed by a bushfire in 1932. The stables, servants quarters, gardens and about 300ha of forest are all that remained.
A large Forests Commission pine plantation at Olinda was also burnt in 1962, and after a lengthy period of procrastination, local FCV crews began replanting the 192 hectares in the mid-1970s with exotic and less-flammable species such as oaks and elms.
The resultant R. J. Hamer Forest Arboretum was opened on 22 April 1977 in honour of the State Premier who had supported its development and who was the patron of the “Victoria – The Garden State” campaign.
The Arboretum adjoined the 34-hectare Olinda Golf Course, Olinda Recreation Reserve and the National Rhododendron Gardens, which collectively acted as a unique strategic firebreak.
The Olinda Swimming Pool was also built after the 1962 bushfires as an emergency fire dam.