Keep the home fires burning.

The Victorian Firewood Emergency.

The 1940s were a busy and difficult time for the Victorian forestry profession.

One of the pressing requirements placed on the Forests Commission during World War Two was to organise emergency supplies of firewood for civilian heating and cooking because of shortages in the supply of coal, briquettes, electricity and gas.

Firewood was also substituted for steam locomotives in shunting in marshalling yards because of an earlier explosion at the State Coal Mine at Wonthaggi in February 1937. A situation made worse by problems in securing black coal from NSW.

Skilled labour was very hard to find because many foresters and experienced bushmen enlisted to serve overseas.

And let’s not forget the massive and ongoing timber salvage and roading program in the mountain ash forests of the Central Highlands after the 1939 bushfires.

A fuel branch was set up at the Flinders Street railway buildings to coordinate the Emergency Firewood Program.

Prior to the War, less than 1000 tons of firewood was delivered into Melbourne each week, but new estimates of an annual shortfall of a massive 300,000 tons were forecast.

The firewood was transported by special weekend trains to Brookwood, which was next to the Altona North workshops and to other depots, before distribution across Melbourne by nearly 500 fuel merchants.

In its first year of operation, the Forests Commission dispatched some quarter-million tons into the city.

As part of the solution, in 1942, the Commission purchased the Paddle Steamer Hero and two barges (John Campbell and the Canally) from Arbuthnot Sawmills at Koondrook and moved them to Echuca.

Under well-known Captain Spencer “Spenny” Clark, the Hero transported the much-needed red gum logs from the Barmah State forest 50 miles downstream to Echuca.

But first, the Commission needed to repair what was left of the aging and dilapidated Echuca Wharf. About 80% had already been cut up for firewood by the Victorian Railways reducing it to its current length of 75.5 metres.

Forty-two new piles were driven, and a considerable amount of decking replaced. A ten-ton steam crane was also brought up from Point Cook.

Some historians say it was the Commission that saved the iconic Echuca Wharf from being totally lost.

The logs from Barmah were crosscut at Echuca and taken by steam train to Melbourne.

In addition to private firewood cutters much of the labour came from Italian war internees, sometimes known as enemy aliens.

By 1944-45 the productivity of 300 Italian internees had risen to approximately 24 tons per man per week.

By January 1942, the Forests Commission had identified seven camps to accommodate about 2000 Internees and POWs.

One such camp was at GlenWylln just north of Stawell on a small piece of remote State forest.

Forester Jack Gillespie had recently graduated for the Forestry School and found himself plunged into the wartime firewood emergency.

Ultimately, it’s believed there were as many as 20 smaller firewood camps, but it’s still unclear exactly how many operated and little remains in the archives or in the bush to betray their whereabouts. The camps at Mt Disappointment are probably the best known.

A large POW Camp at Graytown, east of Heathcote, also provided firewood throughout the war years. The 14-acre site had been used by the Forests Commission since 1919, first as a worker’s camp and then later as a sustenance camp during the 1930s Depression.

It’s reported that the prisoners at the Graytown camp initially enjoyed the outdoor work but became progressively dispirited as the war dragged-on and their weekly productivity dropped dramatically.

There were other POW camps near Tatura, Rushworth, Myrtleford and Murchison.

The Victorian Emergency Firewood Project continued long after the War ended and over the period from 1941 to 1954, nearly two million tons was produced.

Firewood stacked at Stawell Station awaiting transport to Melbourne in 1944. Photo: Jack Gillespie. Source: FCRPA collection.
Italian war internees, or enemy aliens, were employed to cut firewood. Often without guards, they were supervised by Forests Commission foremen. Internees were paid a wage and enjoyed relative freedom, unlike their POW counterparts. Photo: State Library Vic.
The Paddle Steamer Hero was built at Echuca in 1874 by George Linklater and traded on the Murrumbidgee River as a hawking vessel until the 1930s when it was sold to Arbuthnot Sawmills at Koondrook as a logging boat. The PS Hero was purchased by the Forests Commission in 1942 to tow logs 80km from the Barmah Forest to Echuca.
The Echuca Wharf was the longest and busiest on the Murray River. By 1884 it reached 332 metres in length but during World War II the Victorian Railways demolished much of it to provide firewood for Melbourne, reducing it to its current length of 75.5 metres. The Forests Commission invested in stabilisation and 42 new piles and decking timbers and some historians say it was the Commissions intervention that saved the historic wharf from being a total loss. Photo: State Library of SA.
PS Hero and PS Alexander Arbuthnot hauling logs on the Murray – circa 1930. Low water, overhanging trees, sandbars, driftwood, dangerous currents and sudden shallows were everyday hazards for paddle steamers. Snags, where red gum trees which had fallen into the river, presented the most dangerous problem. They were impossible to spot in the brown water of the Murray and frequently caused holing and sinking of vessels. Paddle steamers navigated sandbanks by rushing the small ones and winching across the large ones. State Library of SA photo.
In January 1942 the Forests Commission identified seven Internment and POW camps for 2000 men to cut firewood but about 20 smaller camps were eventually established. Their location is not fully known.

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