In the first installment from The Life and Times of James Kenneth Stewart, Ken wrote of the 1943 fire that resulted in the death of 10 firefighters. Read the first extract from Ken Stewart's memoirs.
View the newspaper archive of the Tarrawingee fires.
The second fire
The second fire, starting two weeks later on 6 January 1944, was the most devastating fire in our history. It started at Springhurt on a bad north wind morning. We met it on the road between Grealys and Clear Creek Station. I was with Wally Swan on his truck and we had a 100 gallon tank with a hand Malco pump. Tarra brigade got three more of these and they were just a little better than a knapsack or a bush. The fire beat us there and we drove down to the next road near the Byawatha tennis courts (where I lost my new straw hat which cost two shillings). It was on our tail so we came round to the Eldorado Road near the Carraragarmungee School. It crossed Reidy Creek and was on to us very quickly (and we later found out why). We should have had more time while it was crossing the green of the creek to have had a break in.
It then crossed the road aided by a terrific whirlwind that sounded like a tornado coming and headed south towards the railway line, near our property. We hightailed it home to yard the stock and protect the house. Luckily the whirlwind died and more men arrived and stopped the fire at the railway line, which was burnt each year in case coals fell from the train engine. Everyone was saying to us how lucky we were that the two fires had burnt so close without loss.
We held it along the railway line for the rest of the day and all night until next afternoon when a terrific storm and wind came up from the west and it took off, up the railway line towards Everton to Gapsted. Today with all our equipment we would have had it all blacked out in the time. It’s important to get things safe quickly after the running fire is stopped, as one never knows how bad the weather can get in a short time. This fire caused much loss of houses, stock, fencing, and timber but no lives. The Everton Railway Station and the hotel and many houses around Tarrawingee Rail and Everton Upper were lost.
In the afternoon when the wind sprang up we were over at Brian Stone’s, half asleep, sitting under the shade of an acacia tree. We hadn’t had any sleep for about 30 hours when Mr Walpole came along and told us to get for home as the fire of the previous fortnight had sprung up again down at Hourigan’s paddock and was burning over the old dried leaves dropped from the burnt trees. So we rushed to put the sheep into the house yard and down to the back of the 30 acres behind the house which was in a crop of wheat. By the time we got there, the fire had entered the paddock and we feared that it would soon devour it. So we made a stand behind the house aiming to save it and the sheds which we did. It took ages to burn up through the standing wheat crop. It burnt through Eric Swans and our 100 acres of grass twice as quickly so we were able to turn the sheep out on to the burnt ground before the fire got up to the house and we didn’t lose any. With tubs and buckets of water we were able to stop the fire behind the house and that meant the front house paddock wasn’t burnt, so we had some grass left for the sheep.
Our main costs were for fencing materials and fodder as we lost our two big stacks of hay. We split our own posts and bought army steel posts used for barb wire entanglements with no holes in them, so we had to bore them. Because there were no fences, the cows got into a pile of wheat where the bags had been burnt. We rushed into Wang and bought every packet of sand and colic drench we could lay our hands on. This was an impaction drench to get the whole wheat through the cows’ stomachs before they died of bloat. Dave McGregor, the local vet and his son Alan helped us drench the cows and miraculously we didn’t lose any.
I can remember Rick O’Keefe coming with a small truckload of hay just after the fire for which we were very grateful as two big stacks of oaten hay in sheaves had been burnt. Later the two Miss Murdocks of Milawa offered us a small paddock where we took our milking cows for a couple of months as we had to dry them off. It was the only time I can remember having to buy fodder as we’ve always been able to conserve enough to keep us going. We bought a stack of hay at Shepparton and went down and pressed it into bales to be trucked by railway to Tarrawingee Rail. We also bought a railway truck of potatoes to chop up and feed the cows in the bail and I can remember them chewing the potatoes and the juice running out their mouths.
The Tarrawingee monument
The memorial was unveiled on 22 December 1944. Units that attended include Wangaratta at a cost of £1,000, Tarrawingee £800, South Wangaratta, Wangaratta North, Beechworth, Moyhu, Everton, Boorhaman, Laceby West and Benalla.
The monument is situated on the spot the unit was burnt and records the names of the 10 victims who lost their lives. Each year now, when Fire Awareness Week is celebrated and after the street procession, our Wangaratta Group of fire brigades pilgrimage out to the monument to lay wreaths in a small ceremony which is very impressive.
I do feel that these fires were the reason the Government saw the need to provide better firefighting equipment in the state as it was November of 1944 that CFA was formed. As I iterated in my speech to the firemen standing at the monument in 1993, “These men did not die in vain”.
Ken’s daughter remembers
Andrea Appleby is one of Ken’s seven children. “Dad was a member of the Tarrawingee Rural Fire Brigade for 56 years and served as captain, president and communications officer. He was the secretary of the Wangaratta Group of Fire Brigades for almost 14 years and was awarded a national medal for services to the CFA in 1984.
“The Tarra fire was very dear to Dad’s heart as he not only fought in the fire as a 21-year-old, but organised the memorial service for the families of the victims every year and lobbied hard for the victims to be recognised.
“I attended the annual memorial service at Fiskville both this year and last when the Tarra fire plaque was unveiled. Dad would have been thrilled.
One of his grandchildren, Ces Achias, became involved with Kinglake West CFA after Black Saturday. He has now moved to Kinglake and is building a house. Ces credits his early years on the farm with Dad [Ken] for his enthusiasm and commitment to CFA now. He's constantly doing extra training and is an integral part of his brigade with good friends there all around his fence line.”
Neil Brock remembers
Neil Brock started as a Trainee Regional Officer in 1967 and arrived in Region 23 – now District 23 – in 1975 as Regional Officer in Charge.
“Following my appointment in 1975, I soon became aware of the significance of the December 1943/4 Tarrawingee fires.
“In the 1970s, people like Ken Stewart of Tarrawingee and Jack Allen of Everton were still actively involved with their respective fire brigades. Both of these men were personally involved with the firefight and were profoundly affected by the fire. Jack Allen suffered injuries which put him in hospital for some time. Each saw the need to improve the way we fight fires and the need for fire brigades to be equipped for the task. Very few tankers existed at that time.
“In the years following the fire, a number of brigades took the initiative and obtained vehicles (mostly ex-army) and set them up with tanks and pumps for firefighting. This fire, and others, resulted in steps being taken to ensure that brigades were better coordinated. Fire brigade groups were formed and radio communications established.
“These were formative years for CFA in Region 23.”