The threat and actual ravages of fire have influenced Coromandel Valley from its beginning, as they have human civilization of all time. The scrub-covered Adelaide Hills and the hot summers, when the grass is very dry, create hazards in this regard, which are not common to the England from which the colonists came. Unaware ofthe dangers, the early settlers saw burning as an easy answer to some of their problems of getting rid of bushland which they wanted to clear, or of disposing of large piles of brush and timber which had already been piled up.
Unfortunately, they did not learn their lessons on this matter for a long time, perhaps because there were ‘new chums’ continually arriving for many years, who had to be taught by their own mistakes. Even until well into the twentieth century, hills dwellers, in their handling of fire, were making the kinds of errors which caused holocausts. Folk on ships coming into the colony in its early days often described the hills as ‘on fire from end to end’ or ‘ringed with fire’. Newspapers throughout the nineteenth century made frequent references, during summer months, to flames which threatened not only Coromandel Valley but the whole area of the ranges.
On the local scene, one of the worst of these was in 1876, when a huge fire burnt from Coromandel Valley to Echunga, a distance of over ten miles as the crow flies. One of the pities of this particular blaze was that it burnt many of the old houses in the area. Only stone structures could withstand the flames, so that the old wooden homes, of the earliest types, were lost to posterity.
Fighting the fires was a difficult business. Men had no way of transporting large volumes of water to the scene. They had to rely on there being available large numbers of volunteers who could wield the leafy bough of a tree, or a sack (occasionally soaked in water) to knock the flames down. One enthusiastic fighter of the time lost his sack- whether by burning or absentmindedness is not known. No more were available, he could not find a suitable bough, and so he quickly removed his trousers and beat the flames with them. The fate of his trousers has not been recorded.
These methods, which had not much effect against big fires, changed but little until the 1930s. Then occurred the fire which the Valley would like to forget, but finds it hard to. One of its citizens, John Weymouth the second, lost his life in it. He was seventy-five years old at the time, and with about fifty other men, was trying to save the Baust property which was perched high above the Sturt River. Fires have a habit of racing very swiftly uphill, and that’s what happened in this case.
The particular year was 1934, a bad one for fires throughout the State. Coromandel people watched fearfully at night as the fire raged in the Sturt Gorge, east of the town, showering them with ashes and debris. The whole district was mobilised on several occasions to fight such fires as these in the district, within the space of a few weeks. On one occasion, the Blackwood church bells were rung frantically at three o’clock in the morning to summon all available hands to help. There have always been strong suspicions in the district that some of the fires of that year were lit by a fire-bug. It was not only scrub-land which was destroyed; houses, the cold store in Blackwood and a church hall were also lost.
– An extract from Sanctuary In The Hills reproduced with permission of the author. © 1975, 1987 Max Winter.