Fifty-five years ago yesterday, Hobart’s bush suburb of Fern Tree was torn apart by fire. Having fled their homes, traumatised residents huddled, some for hours, in the forecourt of the local hotel before being rescued on the back of trucks.
A few days later The Mercury , the newspaper which employed me at the time, sent me and veteran photographer Len Carter on a drive down Huon Road to inspect the damage. What we saw was burnt-out cars, the odd house, a lot of chimneys, leafless tree-trunks sticking out of a deep, desolate carpet of ash – and a strange absence of people. It looked like the end of the world; certainly the end of Fern Tree.
I didn’t dwell too much on this. I was shaken by the death of my Aunty Elsie in the Derwent Valley but relieved to hear that my childhood home had survived. I was young, didn’t live in Fern Tree, and in a fortnight would be taking up a new job on a NSW country newspaper.
In my absence, much changed. The rain stayed away all winter, giving rise to daylight saving and power restrictions. Politicians and bureaucrats resolved to keep building dams, which gave impetus to a new environmental movement.
Fern Tree didn’t die, after all. As new shoots sprouted and small animals and dawn choruses returned, new houses were built; one is now my home. After the turmoil of that dreadful day, people picked up the pieces and got on with living.
But they didn’t quite put it all behind them. In 2017 Fern Tree marked the fires’ 50th anniversary with a public exhibition which included written accounts of that day. Reading others’ stories, some survivors resolved to turn them all into a book.
Five years later it’s finally with us: a 328-page epic called Fern Tree on Fire. Thanks mainly to the effort of 1967 survivor and compiler Robin Hurburgh, that small handful of original stories now numbers 73.
Having set the scene with stories about growing up in this idyllic bush village before the fires, the book turns to that day of terror, mayhem and loss. This record of experiences offers a first-hand, deeply personal guide to what it’s like when the fire roars, the smoke swirls and the embers rain down from a blackened sky.
On 7 February 1967, 10-year-old Roey Casey (now Roey Wilkinson) was rushed home from school before being forced to take refuge at the Fern Tree Hotel. She takes up the story:
“I remember people trying to hide in cars and people crying and screaming. We were told that there was no way out and to huddle underneath a tarp as water was sprayed on top… I remember my mum crying and holding us tight and telling us how much she loved us. The noise, the heat, the smoke – I will never forget it…
“…I realise now that we should have talked about our experiences and shared our stories. It never crossed my mind until recently, and I am feeling very emotional and can’t seem to explain why. In 1967 this just wasn’t the thing to do.”
Here on the Mountain, this 2021-22 summer has been wonderful. Forest and gardens are flourishing after spring rains and the air is humming with life. And not a hint of fire.
But none of us is complacent. The 2009 Victorian fires followed by Dunalley, the wilderness fires and the Black Summer firestorm, plus horrific fire stories from North America and Europe, remind us that wildfires are getting wilder, hotter and potentially deadlier.
Half a century without a blaze on these slopes leaves us very vulnerable. Like people living on an eroding coast we can expect higher insurance costs. There will be worse fires to come than in 1967, says fire ecologist David Bowman, so we must accept that the trauma so graphically described in Fern Tree on Fire may one day be our individual and collective lot.
But that prospect is no more than an extension of the anxiety felt by every person in every community about a future growing daily more uncertain. Dealing with that climate-driven uncertainty, which clearly should be the topmost government priority, is our collective destiny.
Meantime, here in Fern Tree we get to live with nature and its wonders, in all weathers through every season. A fool’s paradise, you may say, but a paradise still, and priceless.
[• Fern Tree on Fire is published by the volunteer Fern Tree Fire Brigade, with all profits going to the brigade’s upkeep. The first print run is sold out, but further copies are obtainable by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org]