Halfway through 2019, the topic of conversation among friends, family, and neighbours was ‘the drought’ and how it’s protracted nature was bringing so many close to ruin. Everyone was looking for those Spring showers and early storms. However, they didn’t arrive and within days there was only one thing on everyone’s mind – ‘the fires’.
For us, the fires began in August. A farmer several kilometres away was burning off when gale-force winds sprung up and drove the fire directly towards us. Within the hour the fire had raced through several kilometres of bushland and was threatening several homes near us. Fortunately, we had the Rural Fire Brigades, water-bombing planes and many friends and neighbours with fire- fighting equipment all throwing everything at the raging fire. They were finally successful in defending our homes and properties and brought it under control. We were the lucky ones. Over the next weeks and months, others to the north and south of us lost everything- homes, businesses and even lives.
We had bushfires through the area in 1993 when several neighbours lost sheds and outbuildings as well as pastures, but none of us could compare that fire to what we faced in August.
That week in August was a defining moment in our lives which changed everything.
Our bushfire scare brought to mind my maternal grandparents, Arthur and Harriet May Baxter, who were farmers on the South Arm of the Tweed River in northern New South Wales. I had heard family stories and I knew they had come close to losing their home to bushfires in the 1940s.
I talked to the only living member of the family, my mother’s youngest sister, who was only a child at the time, but she could still recall the frightening experience. She could not recall how many times but knew it was more than once and it was during World War II when all the young men of the district, including her brother, were away at war. That left the older men, women, and children to fight the fires.
A search of the local newspapers on Trove on the National Library of Australia website gave me more details of these fires. The first was in 1940.
Fires Rage In South Arm Area – Pastures Burnt Over Wide Area
The period of extremely dry weather experienced by the Tweed and Richmond districts for the past six months culminated yesterday in a serious outbreak of fire which destroyed valuable pastures over a wide area between Uki and Nimbin.
Tweed Daily (Murwillumbah, NSW : 1914 – 1949) ,Tue 5 Nov 1940 Page 2 , Fires Rage In South Arm Area
Extensive Damage from Fires
Grassland and Timber Destroyed at South Arm
Considerable damage was caused to grassland, fencing, timber, and roads from the grass and bushfires which raged through sections of the South Arm district on Monday and yesterday. Last night, while sections were still burning, it was stated that they were being watched carefully, and were under control. The southerly wind yesterday assisted the firefighters, who had been kept hard at work for many hours. Women helped the men at the arduous work.
The Tweed district has been enveloped in smoke since Monday, and the nearby hills have been practically obscured from view. The fires ravaged an area from Lilian Rock on the Kyogle Road to Uki, a distance of about 15 miles, and spread for varying distances from the road, through valuable pastures and timber. Some homesteads were endangered, but all were saved.
On Monday, after a report from the burning area, First-Class Constable McDonald and Constable Fullwood, of Murwillumbah, and the Shire Engineer (Mr. A. L. Hornman) motored to Nimbin and Lillian Rock, where they met Constable Griffen, of Nimbin.
The trip to Lillian Rock and back to Murwillumbah by the police party was most uncomfortable, and at times hazardous, as the fire raged on both sides of the road and big trees were falling.
The party was expected back in Murwillumbah shortly after 1 o’clock yesterday morning, but it was not until after 5 o’clock that it was able to get through. The members were compelled ‘to clear the ‘road of fallen timber at frequent intervals, and at one point a large bloodwood, three feet in diameter, blocked their progress for some hours.
While some members walked through the blackened country for about three miles for a saw, one of the police officers set to work to cut through the big log.
Shire employees with a caterpillar tractor were sought to haul the timber off the road, and the gang was kept busy for many hours clearing a path for many other cars that were held up on various parts of the road.
With timber burning on both sides of the road throughout yesterday, many other trees fell and gangs will be employed to-day clearing the road. In places, the heat of the fires, which encroached to the sides of the road and the burning timber caused extensive damage to the bitumen surfacing.
Valuable Grassland Destroyed
It was estimated last night the fires had swept through at least 500 acres of grassland, and unless early rain falls the position in the South Arm district will be serious. Already there has been considerable movement of stock to the reaches of the river where more feed is available, while some owners have sought agistment in other parts of the Tweed district.
There were further outbreaks of fire yesterday and a close watch had to be maintained by owners, but it was stated last night that the position was well in hand. The fires raged throughout the day on Monday and many homesteads in the South Arm area were menaced.
The fire even encroached to within a short distance of the Church of England building at Kunghur, but was kept in check before any damage was done.
Traffic on the road between Uki and Nimbin was dislocated on Monday through burning trees falling across, but little difficulty was experienced yesterday in getting through. No reports of serious damage to property have yet been received, although, fencing on many farms has been burnt. It was earlier reported that a house and outbuildings owned by Mr. C. Way at Byrrill Creek had been destroyed, but this was contradicted last night. It was stated that the fire got to within a short distance of the buildings but the firefighters managed to get it under control in time.
Fires in Forest
A thick, smoke haze could be seen over the Mebbin forestry area, but it has not been ascertained whether there has been any serious damage. Firefighters battled for six hours in the Whian forestry area on Monday night to get a big blaze under control.
It was stated last night that there were many blackened areas in the Midginbil, Kunghur and Mt. Burrell areas. where practically every available man helped to fight the fires on Monday.
A number of farm buildings was endangered when the fires, aided by a strong wind, ran swiftly through the pastures. In the Kunghur area, the blaze had to be fought to save the properties of Messrs. A. Baxter, C. McMahon and W. H. Taylor.
Tweed Daily (Murwillumbah, NSW : 1914 – 1949) Tue 12 Nov 1940 Page 2 Destruction Of 3,000 Acres
A young man was charged with arson under the Careless Use of Fire Act (1912). When all the evidence was laid out, none of the farmers chose to prosecute him.
The full story can be found here.
Tweed Daily (Murwillumbah, NSW : 1914 – 1949) Thu 14 Nov 1940 Page 8 Youth Fined £52 On Careless Use of Fire Act Charges
That was the first but not the last of the fires on the Home Front during World War II.
That was a close call that you had in August. So much similar the early newspaper accounts this past bushfire season. It’s been remarked regarding the fires, and our local fires in particular that old knowledge and ways, selective & skilled backburning by farmers and locals -who have been doing it all their lives- is what saved many people’s properties. The RFS did their best but couldn’t have coped with it all on their own.
Yes, few people realize how much they owe these local volunteers. They are more than super heroes as we are concerned. We have always had family in their ranks, so understand the sacrifices they make for their community.