1961 Dwellingup Bush Fire

Our Town Remembers

On Thursday, 19 January 1961 a large number of lightning strikes occurred, in an area stretching from Dwellingup in the north to Manjimup in the south of Western Australia, with further strikes on the following day. Little or no rain fell at the time, but in view of the fuel loads that existed, heavy rain would have been needed to extinguish the lightning strikes. At Dwellingup there were 9 strikes on Thursday and a further 10 on Friday. Due to these other fires, very little support could be provided to Dwellingup from other areas in those critical two days. For more information visit the Dwellingup Trails and Visitor Centre.

Quick FActs

  • 6 Towns destroyed
  • 150,000 ha burnt
  • No lives lost

A Catastrophic Toll

Despite this massive multiple fire situation, Dwellingup forces had almost controlled the 9 strikes on Thursday, before the next 10 strikes outflanked much of their established firelines. Fire crews were recalled to Dwellingup on Saturday after the Torrens 10 fire crowned and spread very rapidly with intense spotting. Three more strikes were reported on that day. With so much smoke around the region, the tower-based fire detection system became almost useless.

On Sunday the weather eased, but by this time the fire size had increased to 45,000 ha and the perimeter was estimated to be 100 km, giving suppression forces a huge task. On Monday good progress was made with fireline construction, but the Wells fire broke away. On Tuesday the weather worsened again, with the temperature exceeding 40°C and winds swinging north west at increasing strength. A severe evening thunderstorm caused a massive southerly spread that resulted in catastrophic damage to property at Dwellingup, Holyoake and Nanga Brook. Fortunately no lives were lost due to very experienced fire crews and  competent managers.  However, towns were beyond salvation.

The fire was eventually brought under control on Wednesday after heavy rain fell and the weather cooled considerably. Final fire size was about 150,000 ha.  Of all the towns destroyed in the 1961 fires, only Dwellingup was rebuilt.


A Personal Story

Banksiadale    27th January 1961

Dearest Mother & All

How good it is to be able to say we are all safe & sound, after a week of horror.  The papers give anything but the correct idea of things.  It all started after that awful fortnight of extreme heat, with lightening on the Thursday night which started about 20 different fires in a wide area.  By Friday night the Forestry Dept, could not control them all & the men were called out to help from the Mill till Wednesday night hardly a man had more than a few exhausted hours rest Bill went from 9 a.m. Saturday till 11p.m. Sunday when he came out for a spell, that is how they worked back at it again by 6p.m. till midday Monday a couple of hours rest & off again first one place & then another where ever it seemed worst.  Sometimes miles from home & sometimes near we never undressed for three nights, could read outside at midnight with the glow. 

Tuesday found fires ragging all, round us but a few miles off men flat out burning back to them.  When Richard and Allan came about 2.30 I think it was I hustled them off & not any too soon.  Shortly after that all hell was let loose, when tornado like wind came from nowhere.  The fires raced towards here from Dwellingup way then all of a sudden dead calm absolutely eerie in the dense smoke & red glare then the wind started again in the opposite direction & was another glare & the fire just raced into Dwellingup & they never had a chance.  How any one was saved is nothing short of a miracle. Yet not a casualty any where, people got in ditches & wells & lavatory pits with a wet bag over them, others huddled on the footie aground with wet blankets over them & the ones in the Post Office & School kept spraying and breathed through wet rag, this gave us here a little respite, though the fire was coming from out the bush way, about 9.30p.m.

Bill came home & said things were grave, get a blanket a spot of food & change of cloths & any money ready & if the whistle blew to go to the Mill & they would keep the hose on us, it must have been about 11.30p.m. when he came home again to say we had to go by car, any one who hadn’t a car had to go by Mill bus & trucks.  We had 10 minutes to assemble at he Mill before this we had all watered the outside of our houses & had buckets of water at teach corner & the stirrup pump etc everything was red with the glare, could see flames leaping feet into the air in every direction & the terrible roar of the fire nearly drove us all crazy.  I can still hear it & still see it. I still can’t get to sleep.

Well we moved, off from the Mill cars etc bumper to bumper Bill leading the way as Mr. Husetable said he wouldn’t panic when going into the burning parts to get through to safety. We went round the back way to the Dam, fires right and left from here on we had to have a bulldozer in front to push the burning trees that had fallen out of the way, about 2 mile of this trees every chain or less.  We halted while trees were pushed off fires everywhere – was it hot – then the bulldozer conked after that Len King had to come up front & cut the trees through with his chain saw & 4 or 5 men rolled then aside & we moved on, eventually got to Huntley which had been burnt out on Sunday still plenty of trees etc burning though it was safe was about 1.30 a.m. the men just dumped us & got in the Bus & trucks & came back & they never left again or stopped for one minute they burnt back in all directions, after that it seemed forever before daylight about 7 a.m.

A couple of men came through from Dandalup, arranged to bring us food etc, we started organising & feeding kids & elderly folks, then at ten they decided to shift us all the women and kiddies & old folk down into the Dandalup Hall.  I could write a book on what happened during those hours at Huntley, then I sent Pam & Helen on, & stayed behind to help feed our men as they were supposed, to come out & have a couple of hours rest as soon as the soldiers came.  I worked flat out from dawn till 12 noon as did the small band of us about 8, I don’t mean I alone worked, we had a bit of a spell waiting & time seemed longer than ever.  After the 2p.m.news “we had a wireless in the car”. 

We decided the Army were not coming & we had better take some food back into the men & see what was happening, so 8 of us with two big cartons of sandwiches we had made Kettle tin of tea & a milk can of iced water ( the ice came from Dandalup) & cordially got into a ute & away we went back to Banksiadale through burning trees etc, the poor men had been flat out from the time they went back, we drove right round the edge of Banksiadale where they were fighting & gave them drinks & sandwiches, were they glad, tho’ they reckon we were mad.  We caught one man on the verge of collapse, pulled him round by dipping a tea-towel we had over the sandwiches in the iced water & wrapping his head in it, you could not see two yards in front of you, the place was so dense with smoke & hot was like being in an oven.

They were very scared there would be a sort of combustion explosion & set the place into an inferno, well we went from point to point walking right up to the fires where the men couldn’t come out to us, we got up to the Mill last of all to find the good old Salvation Army with a canteen there, but not knowing the layout they couldn’t move away.  At the time the fire was roaring into the back of our place beyond the footie ground, they told us to get, they didn’t think they would hold it & that is when the Army came in, but they never went near that section of the place, only patrolled the streets, we had run out of eats & drinks & decided to go.  Went out under flames on that stretch from the last house to the dam on the new road, I never thought we would make it or see our men or Banksiadale again.  We were about a mile past the dam on the way to Huntley when the rain started.

We just yelled for joy, we got wet through sitting in the back of the ute.

That’s the story of Banksiadale yet the papers say we all evacuated & the Army saved the place – do I see red and it’s not smoke & flames now, well to continue the rain was even freakish it simply fell down in buckets in Banksiadale valley, yet when we got to Huntley was only a light sprinkle.  Just as we got back Lynette & Bob arrived we had been told to get down to Dandalup with the rest when we left Banksiadale & we never knew how hard it really rained, till later, so I threw out things out of the car into Lynette’s as I couldn’t take our car on & we all left.  When we got to Dandalup, Lyn & Bob took the girls & went on, I wouldn’t leave till I knew what had happened to Bill & the others.  We were all filthy & weary it was 5p.m. then & we went to the Hotel to have a shower.

The people of Dandalup were very good, had hot meals & etc for us, but I couldn’t eat was far too worried & tired, time we had showered some of the men had arrived to say we could go home.  It had poured & though the fires were not out, it was safe.  Bill sent me word to say he wouldn’t leave.  Some of them had to stay, so I came home with Mrs. Perham.  Still a thick pall of smoke.  Our house full of it & every thing inside & out smothered in ash as it had been since last Friday night, but ok.  What a welcome sight to see them still intact.  I had a dreadful night, couldn’t sleep, got up, coudn’t eat had a cup of tea & went to a meeting in the Hall.  From that we went to Dwellingup & Holyoake etc & what a sight, it’s unbelievable.  How anyone escaped is hard to tell so it’ nothing short of a miracle as there were no fatalities at all, some burns & everyone with burnt or sore eyes, but that’s all.

We got home at 3.30p.m. couldn’t eat after what we had seen so just  had a cup of tea, talked & went to bed at (p.m. but another restless & sleepless night.  Bill has been to work today, there is so much to do, lines to clear & mend, roads to clear, stock to be buried.  Grogan had 500 sheep burnt & 200 lambs, its dreadful, dead animals every where.  I sent word to Lynette to keep the children till the weekend & give us a rest.  But they need helpers in Dwellingup each day so I’m down for a couple of hours tomorrow.  I don’t know how long we will be needed, but it is good to be able to help.  Mum dear, when you have read this send it on to Bessy as I cant write it all again & then she can send it on to Freda.  Hope you are all well will write a normal when I get time & feel less weary.  Love to all, your loving daughter.  Myrtle

Believed to be Mertle Jones, husband Bill and children Pam, Lynette, Owen and Richard. Information provided by Phyllis Johnson (Allen) originally from Banksiadale.