Fire on the Limestone Plains/Bush Fires/The Federal Capital Territory 1911 to 1938

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Queanbeyan Age reported large a bush fire [1] reported near Tharwa in January 1912.

During 1913 a major bush fire occurred in the Tidbinbilla area. "This fire came in from the Tidbinbilla side, travelling through Cunningham's improved country at Tidbinbilla (north-west end of run) and was stopped by a trail made from Paddy's river at Flanagan's corner through Murray's Gap towards Oakey Creek.[2]

On 23 December 1913 J.C. Brackenreg wrote to the F.C.T. Administrator Colonel David Miller [3] with a full report on this bush fire.[4]

Bush fire west of the Murrumbidgee River, Parish Congwarra 23/12/1913 Sir

In accordance with your verbal instructions of the 16th and on the above Subject I at once proceeded to the locality and beg to report as follows:-

The fire had a spread over a very large area, the face of which was approx. 10 miles long, the southern part where the greatest danger threatened, extended from Paddy’s River near the south boundary of Phillip Hardy’s land (now Commonwealth property) for about 4 miles west, and had already got into the unimproved country owned by Halcliffe and was dangerously near Tuggeranong which at present is heavily grassed and dry as tinder.

On my arrival I found the local Settlers and Station hands had done splendid work and had the fire checked inside Halcliffe’s boundary but about 1½ mile at Paddy’s River end was burning fiercely and appeared to be beaten the fighters and was unattended. After reviewing the situation I proceeded to the Cotter works & Mr Alfords representing Mr. Brilliant at once placed men and gear at my disposal and within 2½ hours 20 men were at the fire 4 miles away, with the necessary tools etc. Starting one gang on Paddy’s River end of the southern front to make a trail to meet the fire by raking up leaves etc. I took another gang over the mountain (by this time very dark), and commenced a trail from where the men had the fire checked at Mr. Halcliffe’s land, and after working hard all night the two gangs met at daylight with a completed trail.

These men were replaced on the 17th by 20 men, 10 of which under a ganger were sent to assist the tired workers at Halcliffe’s and further west; the balance commenced the work of trailing the eastern wing of the fire. At sundown these men were replaced by 6 men under a ganger who watched the break on the southern front until daylight.

On the 18th had 35 men in 4 gangs, 3 of which worked on the trail from Paddy’s River along the eastern & northern wing to near Hardy’s Mountain on Pierces Creek, where an old fire had died out some weeks previously: this trail had the effect of preventing the fire extending north and east, and so saving Holding 83 (Wm. Hardy) & Moore’s holding and the greater part of Phil Hardy Jnr. (the whole now Commonwealth property) and at the same time preventing the possibility of the fire reaching the Murrumbidgee and so spreading to “Tuggeranong” by this route.

On the night of the 18th 6 men i/c of a ganger watched the fire and on the 19th from early morning I rode the trail with one man and attended to dangerous places; this man (Mr. Flint) I left to patrol the fire whilst there is likely to be danger & to phone from the Cotter at once should the fire jump over trail & be beyond his control.

The damage done was slight, and consisted to the dog proof fence on the southern boundary of Phil Hardy’s holdings; as the fire was still burning an estimate of the number of posts burned cannot be until later. However it is safe to say that had the men not been available and action delayed 24 hours, the fire would have been in the grass country, through Hardy’s Holdings & on to Tuggeranong and it is likely the whole country side would have been burned. There are still hundreds of acres of timber burning, but with ordinary care, it is not likely that there will be any further trouble, for the trails were carefully & of fair width.

I wish to point out that Mr. Alfords as Mr. Brilliants representative placed men and materials at my disposal with great promptness, and had the men conveyed to and from the fire without a hitch, and further assisted me in every possible way; the men and their part, from gangers down worked splendidly, at night as well as during the day.

Yours faithfully J C Brackenreg Inspector, Lands & Survey Canberra

In 1918 a major bush fire threatened Mt Stromlo - This fire travelled from the direction of Coree and was driven in a narrow more or less confined space over Bullen, bark and rubbish being driven by the wind on this side of the river, with the result that Stromlo was endangered, but owing to the narrowness of the fire and the scarcity of feed, its progress was held up at Bulga creek near J. Brown's residence. [2]

The Queanbeyan Age and Queanbeyan Observer gives a more detailed account of "Black Saturday".[5]

In 1920 a significant bush fire occurred in the Tidbinbilla area.- This fire came out of the Cotter over Tidbinbilla Mountain and was driven by the prevailing wind in a South-easterly direction. The fire travelled from Staunton's at Tidbinbilla over Mount Domain into Gibralter Creek and up Gibralter Creek to the head of Kangaroo Flat and from there to Orroral via Mt. Tennent. Over 200 men were engaged on this fire, many being supplied by this Administration. Considerable damage was done to the bush country, but fortunately the fire was kept out of the improved land, so that losses in this respect were not heavy.[2]

An early start to the Bushfire Season in September 1927 saw the Mount Stromlo Pine Plantation threaten by fire as well as a bush fire in the hills behind the Cotter River.[6]

Early January 1929 with most of New South Wales suffering an extreme heatwave, saw the Federal Capital Territory threaten by a major bush fire [7] which originated in the Wee Jasper area.

The last day on 1931 again saw the Territory again threaten by a major bush fire in the Wee Jasper area.

  • This fire travelled from the direction of Wee Jasper to Horseshoe Bend and was stopped at great expense to this Administration at the Murrumbidgee River by a line drawn from the River in a westerly direction. This fire occurred on New Year's Day, and had the high wind been blowing on that occasion, nothing would have kept it on the other side of the river, and as the country was heavily grassed and the fire reached the Murrumbidgee early in the morning, there is no doubt that the position for would have been even more serious that was the case in the recent fire. [2]

The Forester

Acting under your instructions on the 31st December, 1931, I took four men in my car to fire on the Horseshoe Estate, in New South Wales territory, arriving at the fire at 4pm. Mr. M. Walker was controlling operations and had about 15 men on the western front at this time. I handed my four men over to him and they were at once put to work beating out. Mr. Walker and I then rode to the southern front.

There were no men on this section, and from this point there was the greatest danger of the fire spreading into the F.C.T. I advised getting ten men to work immediately on this front in order to carry the fire along a small creek running into the Murrumbidgee River, thus stopping the spread in a southerly directions. Mr. Walker agreed to this plan and rode back to call up the men, when a message came for him reporting a fresh outbreak of fire at the Mullion, near his home.

Mr. Walker left for the new outbreak, taking twelve of his men with him, leaving me with four of my men and three others. We fought the fire towards the river until a strong east wind carried it out of control. Mr. Walker returned at this time with his men having found that the report of fire at Mullion was a false alarm. He took charge and held the fire on a dry creek running parallel with the western front, and this creek in connection with a gully running to the river was the means by which the outbreak was got under control.

All burning grass on all fronts was under control by 3.30am on the 1st of January, 1932. Throwing in and raking back the burning logs and debris was carried on by all available men, and some straightening up of the front was done by burning out dangerous angles.

I had received reinforcements of 16 men from Canberra, 6 arriving at 7pm on the 31st December, 1931 and 10 at 6am on 1st January, 1932, with 3 from Uriarra who arrived at 12 midnight on 31/12/31. Seven men were released at 8.30am on 1st January, 1932 from the western front and sent back to Canberra.

At 2pm on 1/1/32 I considered it safe to withdraw the remainder of the Canberra men (14) leaving the southern front, which was the most dangerous salient, to be guarded by the local men and ten men from Hall side. Three Uriarra men were left to guard a small dangerous salient on the west front.

On 2nd January, 1932 I inspected the fire and found all quiet, there being only two salient where careful guard and felling of Stringybark trees was necessary. This work was being carried out by Canberra men and locals.

I estimate the area burned at 2,500 to 3,000 acres. No stock were burnt. A large number of men were on patrol on the east side of the river on 31st December, 1931 and I feel sure that the fire could have been put under control by 12 noon on 31st December, 1931 if half of those men had crossed to the western side on the morning of the 31st December.

(SGD.) B. J. Bond Forest Foreman

  • The Canberra Times gave updates on the bush fires on the 1st[8] and 2nd[9] of January.

MEMORANDUM for: The Chief Lands Officer. Cotter Valley Fire. January–February, 1932.

As a result of a conference held at the residence of the Chief Lands Officer on Saturday afternoon, 30th January, it was decided to send men to the fire to attempt to arrest its progress and prevent it crossing the Cotter River.

On Sunday, 31st January, Franklin and party approached the north end of the fire from the Brindabella Road and the Reid-Flint party approached the eastern side from Tidbinbilla. The two parties met at Top Flats which served as their base camp. As the result of a few points of rain on Saturday night, the fire was dull on Sunday, and the Franklin party, on its way down to the River, rounded up the isolated portions which were burning and decided to run a trail from the Cotter River to the fire at its nearest point.

This trail was commenced on Monday, 1st February, south of Bushrangers’ Creek, but during the day the fire livened up and broke away, and the trail had to be abandoned in favour of a new line north of Bushrangers’ Creek. Flint and Franklin worked together for a day or two on this new line from the Cotter up the very steep hill along Hardy’s old fence line, and Franklin then transferred his camp from Top Flats to the Tea Tree Yards near the territorial boundary, and began trailing down from the top to meet Flint.

By Thursday morning, the 4th February, a half mile of this trail was still uncompleted, but in view of the approach of the fire to the river, it was decided to light the trail. On Thursday night and Friday morning, Reid lit along the Cotter River from Bull Creek to Bushrangers’ Creek, Flint from Bushrangers’ Creek to half way to the top of the Mountain, and Franklin from that point to the top. The back firing seems to have been well done, and jumped the trail in only one place, when it crossed the river at Top Flats, but it was checked just before reaching camp there. The trail was well-made from the river half way up the mountain by the combined Flint-Franklin party, but the top half of the trail was rather poorly done, and it seems to me rather more by good luck than good management that the fire was held. It looks as though Franklin was obliged to light his trail before it was completed right through, and took a chance on a section of it, and raked in as he lit up.

On Friday afternoon, 5th February, rain came, checking the fire, and on Saturday, 6th February, all men were withdrawn from the fire.

On Friday morning, 5th instant, a fire at the head of Bourke’s Creek was observed by Overseer Bradley from Uriarra Forest. This did not increase very much during the day and on Saturday, 6th, Reid and Flint inspected it and found that it had burned about 30 acres at the foot of St. John’s Rock. The origin of this fire is unknown. I consider it impossible that it could have started from the big fire- more than a mile away- in view of the conditions prevailing, and owing to its inaccessibility and the sparseness of grass, it seems hardly likely that it was maliciously lit. Lightning which is reported by Flint to have occurred on the previous evening may have been responsible for it.

On Saturday and Sunday, 13th and 14th February, an inspection of the fire was made from Bull Creek to the territorial boundary near Bull’s Head, and only one log was found burning, and this was out before the fire was left on the 15th instant.

There were no accidents at the fire, but some of the horses strayed from the camp and have not yet been recovered. When it appeared probable at one stage that the fire would cross the Cotter, arrangements were made to rake the trail used in 1926, and this was done from the Tidbinbilla Sawmill southwards by Snow and volunteers; from the Sawmill northwards to Kirschener’s Gate by Maloney and volunteers; and from Kirschener’s Gate to the Brindabella Road, via Vanity’s Crossing by Forestry employees.

C.R.Cole Forester


[edit | edit source]
  1. "BUSH FIRES.". Queanbeyan Age. 23 January 1912. 
  2. a b c d From The Bush Fire Control Organisation files
  4. Letter 329/13 Dated 23/12/13 Department of Home Affairs Land and Survey Branch- Transcript of original hand written document
  5. "Bush and Grass Fires.". Queanbeyan Age and Queanbeyan Observer. 10 December 1918. 
  6. "NARROW ESCAPE". The Canberra Times. 13 September 1927. 
  7. "BUSH FIRES OVER WIDE AREA". The Canberra Times. 10 January 1929. 
  8. "BUSH FIRE MENACE". The Canberra Times. 1 January 1932. 
  9. "FIRES HELD IN CHECK". The Canberra Times. 2 January 1932.