There’s an old saying that good things come in threes, but that doesn’t seem to be the case for our district so far as the years 2003, 1983 and 1973 are concerned. The summers for each of those years were very severe ones with bush fires a major problem. As I write this, Lysterfield has survived an apparently deliberately lit fire that burnt out part of the Lysterfield Lake Park in early 2003. The terrible Ash Wednesday fires of 1983 destroyed many properties on both sides of Wellington Road to the east of Lysterfield. However, the most spectacular fire to hit our district occurred on Friday, 19 January 1973, when a series of deliberately lit fires burnt out more than 5,000 acres.
I shall recount the story of that day from the reports in the Melbourne dailies: The Herald, The Sun and The Age.
Fires in Kelletts Road
Friday, 19 January 1973 was a brute of a day with the temperature climbing towards 39 degrees by early afternoon and a strong wind blowing from the north. The day had been declared a total fire ban day – the 13th of the summer – and the whole of the state was tinder dry and ready to burn.
The Home edition of The Herald that day quoted the Country Fire Authority as saying the fire danger was “extreme”. When the Late Extra edition came out at 2.30 pm it was headlined: “Fire Bugs Light Four Blazes”. The report stated that police had closed off Kelletts Road in an attempt to trap at least three firebugs seen lighting fires in grass and scrub along Kelletts Road. A CFA spokesman was quoted as saying that four fires had been deliberately lit. The Forest Commission said that the fire was burning at the eastern edge of Churchill National Park.
In the Final edition of The Herald released about 4.00 pm it was reported that the CFA had two planes in the air. One was controlling the movement of fire trucks by radio and the other was looking for further outbreaks and firebugs. Fire-fighters had put out two deliberately lit fires in Kelletts Road by 2.20 pm. Each had burnt about 50 acres. Meanwhile about 200 fire fighters were battling a blaze which had burnt through more than 200 acres of bushland near Logan Park Road.
1800 Fight To Stop Blaze
That was the headline on the front page of The Sun on Saturday, 20 January 1973. The report said that the fire had raged all day but that firemen were holding it during the night. Lysterfield residents were not expected to be evacuated. The fire had been controlled from the Lysterfield tip on its northern point. To the east it had reached Sugar Loaf Hill and to the west it extended from the Lysterfield Reservoir to the Albion Reid Quarries. On the south side it almost reached Heatherton Road where thoroughbred horses valued at $100,000 were evacuated from the Logan Park Agistment Lodge.
The Sun reported: “The fire was out of control all yesterday afternoon as about 200 units from as far away as Warburton battled it.” Another 200 privately owned vehicles including cement trucks loaded with water were brought into the fight.
“It was a big fire and caused spot fires everywhere,” a CFA official stated to The Sun.
The Sun report continued to say that another fire, also believed to have been deliberately lit, was brought under control last night but not before it had burnt out hundreds of acres in Churchill National Park. “More than 13 CFA units and many police and volunteers fought for hours to save a line of houses in Bergins Road.”
Foothills Afire: Arson
CFA Rushes Reinforcements in From 100 Miles Away
These were The Age’s Saturday front page headlines. The report stated, “Five fires started by arsonists turned the lower reaches of the Dandenongs into an inferno yesterday. In the worst outbreak of bushfires this summer the fires swept through 5000 acres of bush and residential land at Lysterfield, destroying one home and threatening 40 others.
Police said an arsonist could have been responsible for a sixth fire which swept through 500 acres in the Churchill National Park.
2000 firefighters were still battling early this morning to bring the fires under control.
The CFA called in extra units from a 100 mile radius of Melbourne, including Colac, Stawell and Ballarat to relieve weary firefighters.
Police said 75% of the Lysterfield catchment area had been destroyed by the blaze.”
The Age report went on to tell of the police search for two carloads of youths who they suspected of lighting the fires. Police were looking for a green Simca and a red Mazda.
A weatherboard house in Wellington Road, Lysterfield was narrowly saved as the fire burnt up to it. Mrs Valda Weigel and her four children had to run for their lives and survived the ordeal unharmed but were distressed upon returning to find the family’s pet goats all dead.
The Sun reported on the destruction of a weatherboard house owned by Mr Fred Williams in Major Crescent. Fortunately 95 year old Mr Williams. was away at the time but his neighbours Mrs Marlene Reilly and Mrs Rose Fuller helped save his new brick home which was only feet away from the old house.
“The two women, with hose and bucket and some help from the Scoresby volunteer fire fighters, stopped the fire spreading to adjoining properties.”
The Age report continued to tell of anxious hours in Rowville. “Police evacuated four houses near Heany Park … but one man wasn’t leaving.
‘I’ve seen worse fires than this in this country,’ shouted Albert Golding, 75, as he hosed down the walls of his house. ‘I’ve been here all my life. I’ve got a horse and all my stock here,’ he shouted.
The men left Mr Golding to fight for his house. By ten o’clock last night it was still safe.”
First published in the March 2003 edition of the Rowville-Lysterfield Community News