Tragic 1939 fires remembered

With much of Australia currently ablaze I’m reminded of the terrible 1939 fires which are etched forever in my family’s psychology.

My uncle Michael Gorey was killed on Black Friday, 13 January 1939 at Saxton’s Sawmill, Tanjil Bren, along with Ben and Dorothy Saxton. He was 19 years old.

My father Peter was three years old. He huddled under wet blankets in a paddock at Fumina with his parents and five siblings. They watched their house go up in flames and heard the bellows of their 20 cows, which died in the fire or were later shot.

Of the 12 Gorey children only my aunt Noreen lives today. She still weeps when she thinks about the loss of Michael.

When I was young, my father made melancholy drives to the area where they lived, showing us dugouts in thick bush where people sheltered when fire threatened.

Three years ago I was visiting the National Museum in Canberra, where coincidentally there was a display from the 1939 fires. It was confronting to see a photo of my uncle’s body being carried from the dugout where he died.

The Saxton house nearby caught fire and the heat from this swept over their dugout. It is believed that timber supporting the roof of the dugout caught alight. Saxton seems to have been struck by some of the falling timber, which broke his neck. His wife and Gorey went to his rescue as he lay near the mouth of the dugout and tried to drag him back, but were overcome.

WS Noble, Ordeal by Fire
1939 fires
A newspaper report after the 1939 fires.

Black Friday was the culmination of a long, dry and hot summer following  a year of drought. Many creeks and rivers had dried up and Melbourne had water restrictions. Dry heat and hot winds sapped much of the moisture from the ground, leaving forest floors and the open plains tinder dry.

Eighty-one years later and I’m struggling to comprehend the horror of what’s occurring right now in parts of Victoria and New South Wales.

More so because many of the places afflicted are familiar to me. I lived for a time in East Gippsland and Eden on the South Coast of NSW. I spent two summer holidays at Rosedale near Batemans Bay, which was almost destroyed.

Images of people fleeing desperately to survive on beaches are unprecedented and shocking.

After the 1939 fires, many feared it would happen again but nothing came close in terms of ferocity until Ash Wednesday in 1983. In 2003 most of Victoria’s alpine country went up in flames.

I remember this well because it started with a lightning strike on Mount Buffalo, close to Porepunkah where I lived. At one stage we were on standby to evacuate; the car packed with valuables and personal items. The fire loomed large until it was contained in the hills.

Fire is part of the Australian landscape but there’s something sinister about what’s happening today that’s deeply disturbing and unsettling. I don’t think it’s just because we have more photos and video of events as they unfold, it’s more than that.

I think it’s their intensity and the indiscriminate destruction of towns and farms.

The 1939 fires were contained mostly to woody forests in mountains where they consumed and destroyed several sawmills. The 2003 fires were huge but never left remote terrain in Victoria. In Canberra however, more than 490 people were injured and 470 homes were destroyed or severely damaged

The current fires are sweeping across highways and open fields, burning farms, homes, villages, fences and animals, requiring a military response.

Who could ever have contemplated the Royal Australian Navy having to rescue people from Australian shores? I sincerely hope this isn’t the new normal.

3 replies
  1. Serina Bird
    Serina Bird says:

    I didn’t realise your family had been affected by the 1939 fires. Are you named after your uncle? It must have been very hard seeing an image of him at the National Museum of Australia.

  2. Michael Gorey
    Michael Gorey says:

    Hi Serina, I was named after my uncle and grandfather, both Michael John. It was extremely confronting to see his image at the Museum. I felt frozen, unable to move or act for several minutes.

    I updated the post to mention the 2003 fires in Canberra.

  3. Roger Burns
    Roger Burns says:

    Hi Michael, I have been uncomfortably close to the fires here, evacuated twice but everything okay due to favourable winds. Just browsing through the 1939 fires and came across your postings. I have been in touch with Aunt Noreen through Julie Warren and I am sure you can empathise with the memories all this carries for her. You are aware that Uncle Jim was in one of the dugouts at Tanjil Bren but I am not sure if you know that Lindsay;s father and a brother, Ivan, were in the other, smaller dugout. I had the chance years ago to talk to Ivan about the experience and it is a miracle that they survived, despite the precautions the Saxton family had taken. I documented the Burns family recollections in my Burns family history “King Timber’s Children.” I am not sure if you have a copy.
    I also browsed through the Stretton Royal Commission, interesting reading, and I am not sure we have learned all that much.

    Hope all is going well for you in Bundaberg.


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