Fire on the Limestone Plains/Bush Fires/The 1952 Bushfires

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Total Fire Bans (TOBANS) were imposed from 26 to 28 January & from 1 February to 2 March 1952, inclusively in the ACT.[1]

The Bobbys Plain fire[edit | edit source]

Started on 17 January on the Brindabella-Tumut Road (about 16 miles from the A.C.T. Border); The fires burnt out a total of 2,000 acres of bushland, all were believed to have been deliberately lit.[1]

FIRE REPORT No-32. Thursday, 17th January, 1952.

Bobbys Plains, Tigers Hill on road from Brindabella to Tumut and 16 to 20 road miles from A.C.T. boundary.

Thursday, 17th January. The fire was kept under observation for several hours and at 1830 hrs. Forester Margules proceeded to the fire with the Bulls Head unit and 5 men.

At 2230 hrs. Ganger M. Franklin returned to Bulls Head to request assistance from Brindabella Bush Fire Brigade and from Uriarra Forest. Brindabella B.F.B. (14 men) and Bulls Head team fought the fire all night (17th/18th) and brought it under control at 0700 hrs. 18th January.

Friday, 18th January. Forester Green and Uriarra unit and 6 men left Uriarra at 04.00 hrs., arriving at fire 0700 hrs. and relieved Forester Margules, the Bulls Head team and the Brindabella B.F.B. At 1200 hrs. the Bulls Head team and Brindabella team were recalled to the fire to deal with fresh outbreaks. Second Uriarra team sent to fire on Friday night (18th) to relieve the first teams.

Saturday, 19th January. Forester Margules returning to fire on Saturday afternoon with food and fuel supplies met with an accident when his utility truck overturned on the Brindabella road and might easily have been killed, but trees stopped his truck rolling to the bottom of a gorge and he was not injured. Break­down truck was sent out to recover the utility and Mr. Margules proceeded to the fire with the supplies in a utility from Uriarra Forest, arriving at the fire at 01400 hrs. on Sunday, 20th January.

Forestry Section bulldozer from Halls Block, Uriarra, was despatched to the fire at 2100 hrs., arriving at 0900 hrs. on Sunday, 20th January, after being held up for an hour on the Brindabella road by an obstinate Canberra motorist who refused to back his car to allow the bulldozer to pass. It was further delayed by having to make a crossing over the Bramina Creek, where the bridge would not carry the machine.

Sunday, 20th January. The first fire, which was originally three separate fires, and known as the Bobbys Plain fire was declared under control early on Sunday morning and all parties, including the bulldozer, moved on to two fresh outbreaks at Tigers Hill about 0900 hrs. About this time a unit from Parks and Gardens (6 men) arrived at the fire, having left Canberra 0400 hrs., and some of the fire-fighters were relieved. The first two fires at Tigers Hill which merged into one were brought under control by Sunday night.

Monday, 21st January. At 0900 hrs. on Monday a fresh outbreak occurred about mile further along the road towards Micalong Sawmill (Britton Bros.) and all hands were rushed to it, and brought it under control by 1500 hrs. This fire, being the sixth one in four days, was so obviously deliberately lit in several places on a 75-yard front that Fire Captain Dowling 'phoned me asking me to request Police assistance from Yass Police Station. Deputy Chief Fire Control Officer Shoobridge proceeded to the fire on Monday afternoon with food supplies, arriving about 1900 hrs.

Tuesday, 22nd January. Mr. Shoobridge employed his Landrover on mopping up and made an inspection of the fires, and after consultation with Fire Captain Dowling the area was declared safe at 1500 hrs. on Tuesday and personnel (except the bulldozer driver) were allowed to return to their homes. Messrs. Shoobridge and Margules made an inspection of areas beyond the series of 6 fires brought under control, and from a distance saw fresh fires being lit up, as many as 6 or 7 fires starting up within an hour.

CAUSE OF FIRES.- Incendiarism

AREA BURNT.- In the 6 fires attended by our teams, 2000 acres of bush.


The Tanner Fire (Block 26A Woden)[edit | edit source]

Was believed to have been started on the 23 January, by a magpie causing a short circuit on a powerline.[2] The fire burnt out around 500 acres of grass and rough timber.[1]

The Powerline fires of 25 January[edit | edit source]

The first fire was reported at 1015 hours, it started in the Yarralumla area about a mile and half from the Canberra Cemetery (and was known as the Campbell Fire). A second fire started around 1100 hours, about 2 miles from the base of Red Hill, along the power transmission lines (as was known as the Jennings Fire). The westerly winds (around 55 m.p.h.) sent the Jennings Fire over Red Hill; It also caused the Tanner Fire to flare up. The Campbell, Tanner and Jennings fires eventually joined up. The combined fire raced across Mugga Hill and raced on towards Tuggeranong across scrub country. It was finally halted at London Bridge near Burra in N.S.W. (16 miles from its point of origin) around 1800 hours that day.[1]

Two Canberra residents died and a total of 50 square miles was burnt in the A.C.T. and another 50 square miles in adjoining N.S.W.[1]

FIRE REPORT No-40. Friday, 25th January

This is the report, of the series of fires commencing at 1015 hrs. on Friday, 25th January, 1952, and because of the causes of some of the fires may be called the "Power line” fires of January, 1952.

The first fire reported on 25th January was at 1015 hrs. This was reported by Mrs. T. Southwell, wife of the Forest Overseer at Stromlo, and was observed from her residence, from which point the Tanner fire is not visible, being obscured by pine trees. It would appear therefore that the fire reported by Mrs. Southwell started on the windward aide of the Tanner fire and was not a breakaway from that fire.

The Tanner fire itself is now believed to have been caused by a magpie causing a short circuit on power line - a magpie was found underneath the line, with feathers burnt, and at the point of origin of the fire.

Great pains were taken, as usual, to make the Tanner fire as safe as possible. The fire was reported at 1715 hrs. on Wednesday, 23rd January, was brought under control at 1815 hrs., and was handed over by Deputy Chief Fire Control Officer Shoobridge at 2230 hrs. to Mr. Geo. Campbell, Deputy Fire Controller for the District, in the absence from Canberra of the Controller (Mr. G. Tanner).

A unit of the Bush Fire Council (Stromlo fire truck) was left with Mr. Campbell all through the night of 23rd/24th January. Early on Thursday morning, 24th January, Mr. Shoobridge returned to the fire and assisted Mr. Campbell to organize the work of mopping up. This work was carried out by several units of the Bush Fire Council (including the Stromlo, Pierce's Creek, and Parks and Gardens fire trucks), Mr. Eric Brown's unit, bulldozer from Department of Works and Housing, and grader from Forestry Section.

In order to allow Mr. Campbell to obtain some rest during the daytime of 24th January, Mr. Shoobridge arranged for Forestry Overseer Southwell to take over the mopping-up until 1600 hrs. when Mr. Campbell was to take over the fire again. Mr. Campbell did not arrive at the appointed time and the fire was therefore handed over to Mr. Maguire, neighbour of Mr. Campbell and lessee of most of the burnt country.

There was a consultation between Forestry' Supervisor Lattin, Forestry Overseer Southwell, and Mr. Maguire when it was decided to leave the Bush Fire Council units with Mr. Maguire until 1800 hrs., then to be released only if Mr. Maguire and Overseer Southwell were satisfied with the position. Mr. Maguire was requested to report immediately if any unfavourable condition should arise.

Mr. Maguire arranged an all-night patrol of the fire on the night of 24th/25th January (Maguire and son, and Mr. Robert Campbell).

At the time of the outbreak on 25th January the fire was being patrolled by Mr. P. Champion.

I observed the Tanner fire most carefully from the top of Red Hill at 0815 hrs. and it appeared to be quite in order.

My own opinion is that the first fire reported on Friday, 25th January, was independent of the Tanner fire. My opinion is based on its point of origin as first reported, wind direction and velocity. Aerial photographs and continuous self-recording wind records support this belief.

It is not denied, however, that there might have been a breakaway from the Tanner fire as well, as on such a day this could have happened, and at this stage no good purpose can be served by further enquiry.

Immediately the outbreak was reported at 1015 hrs. on Friday, 25th January, all available Bush Fire Council units were directed to the fire, and an appeal made over 2CA and 2CY for all landholders with fire-fighting equipment to proceed to the fire. It is believed that had other fires not intervened the considerable force of fire-fighting units which were directed to the fire would have been able to bring it under control before very much damage had been done.

At about 1100 hrs., however, other fires broke out simultaneously along the power transmission line between Jennings and Campbell's as under:-

(a) near Jennings Depot in the City Area (the Jennings fire); (b) in Campbell's phalaris paddock (the Campbell fire); (c) a transmission pole near Campbell's homestead. (A fourth pole was later found to have shown signs of intense heat but did not actually start a fire.)

The Jennings fire was first reported by Mr. Shoobridge from his radio at 1100 hrs. At that time the fire had burnt about an acre, so it probably commenced a few minutes before 1100 hrs.

The Jennings fire constituted a real danger to the City of Canberra and as it was realized the Canberra Fire Brigade would be unable to cope with it, almost all the Bush Fire Council resources at the other fires were diverted to the Jennings fire. Furthermore, it was realized, that the Tanner fire and the Campbell fire would eventually catch up and merge with the Jennings fire, which in fact they did, and it would have been futile to stop the two rear-most fires only to allow the front fire to escape.

A token force under Foresters Margules and Green, with local landholders, was left at the rear and right flank of the Tanner fire to delay its spread until it could be dealt with later.

One Bush Fire Council unit had to be left at the transmission pole near Campbell's until manpower arrived to release it. This may sound fantastic, but this unit was unable to suppress the fire at the base of this pole which continued to relight in spite of continued watering. Repeated requests were made for the power to be cut off the line. The unit simply had to stay at the pole until relief came, for two reasons –

(a) when the pole burnt through the power line would have been broken, endangering lives from electrocution;

(b) the resultant: fire could have burnt the Campbell homestead.

The three fires (Tanner's, Campbell's and Jenning's) finally merged into one huge conflagration which, on such a day of gale force winds, ten times the amount of fire-fighting equipment would not have brought it under control appreciably earlier than was done.

It was finally halted at London Bridge, about 16, miles from its point of origin, after about 100 sq. miles of country had been burnt (50 in the A.C.T. and 50 in N.S.W.).

As soon as the fire was halted, about 1800 hrs. on the 25th, forces were diverted to the two flanks and the rear of the fire to consolidate the position in case of a change of wind.

Thirty eight (38) points of rain on Saturday, 26th, and Sunday, 27th, gave fire-fighters a respite, and mopping up was continued vigorously for several days until fresh fires diverted units.

Once under control the various sectors of the fire front were handed over to the respective fire authorities (Captain's Flat Bush Fire Brigade, Queanbeyan Bush Fire Brigade, and the Fire Controllers of the A.C.T. Fire Districts concerned).

There has been no breakaway in the A.C.T. but the fire gave further trouble in N.S.W. where the terrain is very difficult and the prevailing winds generally unfavourable.

The fire had continued to burn spasmodically for about twelve days gradually increasing its area by about 25 sq. miles before it was declared under control.


One young man (Begley) died after falling in the fire following a vehicle collision. A second man (Pettit) was fatally burnt, his body being found twelve days after the fire.

About 25 men were treated for burns, including Forestry Overseer Southwell who was trapped in a utility truck which had stalled in the fire and was saved from probable death by Lands employee Phil Robinson.

Two cottages (Oldfield and Russell) were burnt and several outbuildings.


The Mount Stromlo Fire Tuesday 5 February[edit | edit source]

The major fire started at 1053 hours on Walker Hill, about 6 miles northwest of Mt Stromlo. It was started by a lightning strike in scrub; The fire fed by thick undergrowth and fallen pine needles and driven by a strong westerly wind (around 44 miles per hour) drove the fire towards Mt Stromlo.

At 1.00pm the wind increased in speed and swung to the northwest, the Observatory was advised to evacuate women and children. The fire approached the Observatory in 3 tongues; The first tongue was successfully contained but the remaining two combined and ignited the Machine Shop Wing. A oxygen cylinder in the Workshop exploded, the blast bringing down the roof which partially put out the fire and also allowed the staff to contain it.

The main fire passed by the Observatory and destroyed a stand of pines to the northeast, these pines were planted in 1915, the fire then burnt across the Cotter Road and was finally brought under control about 1700 hours in the Kambah area.

The fire destroyed several of the Observatory buildings including equipment (valued at 50,000 pounds), 766 acres of mature pine plantation, another 100 acres of young pine plantation and 7,000 acres of grass country on about 20 separate leases.[1]

The Mountain Creek Fires: 7 February to 4 March[edit | edit source]

The fires burnt in 3 main areas : Baldy Mountain - 7 to 15 February: 3,000 acres, California - 7 to 18 February: 1,500 acres and Bag Range - 7 to 24 February: 10,000 acres.

All these fires are believed to have been caused by lightning on 5 February.[1]

FIRE REPORT No-53 Mountain Creek Fires, 7th February to 4th March, 1952.

It is believed, although not known for certain, that these fires were caused by lightning on 5th February, the same day as a dozen other lightning fires occurred in and adjacent to the A.C.T.

The only practicable way to confine the fires, which were in extremely difficult country, was by breaks constructed by bulldozers, and access tracks made by bulldozers and graders. A large number of men were employed (up to 80 at times) and 10 bull­dozers and graders.

After the first few days when it was appreciated that the cost of making this fire safe would be very considerable, confirmation was sought from the Secretary, Department of the Interior, for the continuation of the measures being taken. This was obtained and it is considered the cost has been justified, as half the expenditure was incurred in constructing tracks and firebreaks which will prove of very great value in fire control in this area in the future, just as roads made since 1939 greatly assisted in controlling these recent fires.

The whole of the field operations were directed by Mr. Shoobridge, assisted by Mr. Margules, and these two officers carried out a very big job with great credit and success. Mr. Shoobridge spent 4 weeks and Mr. Margules 3 weeks at the fire with only two or three breaks of a few hours in Canberra. Mr. Shoobridge has gained great confidence in the ability to arrest forest fires in any sort of country, provided sufficient bulldozer equipment is available and access reasonable.


The value of Landrovers and bulldozers in fire control of this area again cannot be over-emphasized; the success of the whole operation was entirely dependent upon the work of the bull­dozers and the access provided by Landrovers and jeeps and both types of machine stood up to the work remarkably well.

References[edit | edit source]

  1. a b c d e f g A.C.T. Bush Fire Council Annual Report 1951-52
  2. "Not without my corsets! : oral histories of the families who farmed soldier settler blocks in the Woden Valley from 1920 to 1963 / interviews conducted by Marion Douglas and Fionna Douglas ; compiled by Fionna Douglas. - Version details - Trove".