The last days of 1904 brought devastation to the Wagga Wagga district and to many other parts of NSW in the form of massive bushfires. However, something good rose from the ashes – as a direct result of these fires many official bushfire brigades were formed for the first time in our region.
On Friday, 30 December 1904, some grass and timber were set alight at Arajoel, near Galore. The fire travelled in an easterly direction from there to Uranquinty where it joined up with two other fires, one that had begun in the Collingullie area and the other at Grubben, west of Yerong Creek.
Early on Saturday morning the fire reached Lake Albert. The now enormous fire continued unchallenged, sweeping through Gregadoo and moving towards Big Springs, Book Book, Pullitop, Kyeamba, and Humula. The fire also moved across to Forest Hill, Ladysmith, Borambola and Tarcutta. The Wagga Wagga Advertiser estimated that, “the width of flame at Tarcutta extended from the Murrumbidgee to Tumbarumba.”
The local papers reported extensively on the devastation, which included houses, livestock, crops, haystacks, and two men. Mr Alex Snodgrass, aged 65, collapsed and died after fighting fire on his property at Yerong Creek and James Spencer William Fallon, aged 23, employed by a farmer at Sandy Creek was caught and killed by the fires on his employer’s property. He was to have married a young woman from Wagga Wagga the following month.
The Wagga Wagga Express described the fires as beautiful and terrifying:
“When Saturday night set in the scene, though, as a spectacle beautiful was terrifying in the horrors of the losses it limned. The sky was bright red, the fire casting a glow which lighted the country for miles, whilst looked at from eminences nothing but fire could be seen south of the river, extending for miles from east to west and away south as far as the eye could see. In the south easterly direction Alfredtown hills, to the westward Moorong hills, to the South Gregadoo and Big Springs hills, were a mass of fire.”
By Tuesday, rain had fallen in most of the affected areas, extinguishing what was left of the flames.
Due to the enormous destruction the fires had caused throughout NSW that summer, government officials began gathering information regarding the causes of bushfires, and the best methods of preventing and coping with them.
A number of larger properties had their own small water carts, and farmers and graziers would come together when bushfires threatened but this was the extent of organisation for fighting bushfires within the Riverina area.
In November 1905, the Wagga Wagga Advertiser commented that it would be difficult to provide an efficient organisation in the form of a bushfire brigade owing to the “obstacle of providing remuneration for the workers, and that any action in this direction… should be initiated by country residents themselves.”
However, the newspaper did applaud the suggestion of one correspondent, Mr WA Lucus of Millwood Road, that farmers with adjoining properties should jointly purchase fire-fighting equipment and station them at a central farm. Mr Lucas explained that he and his neighbours had recently bought a fire-pump and a 200 gallon tank for the sum of only £10. These were to be placed on a dray and stationed at Mr Corrin’s property, ready for use.
The next reported move in the Wagga district towards the formation of bushfire brigades was made by the village of Tarcutta. A meeting was held on 4 December 1905 where officers were elected and arrangements made to attend all bushfires within a 10 mile radius of Tarcutta.
The Farmers and Settlers Association of Mangain were the next to call a public meeting to create a bushfire brigade, which was held on 23 December 1905 but it took until January 1910 for a brigade to be formed, following a discussion at a fire at Berry Jerry a few days previously.
The formation of the Lake Albert Bushfire Brigade was also extensively reported in the Wagga Wagga Advertiser. Their first meeting was held on 2 January 1906. Mr C Annison was elected Captain, along with four men as lieutenants and seven scouts. A number of tanks, pumps and hoses were soon purchased, along with waterpots and hides to use as firebeaters. The brigade attended their first fire just ten days after that initial meeting.
Within 12 months of the devastation caused by the 1904-1905 bushfires, at least three official bushfire brigades existed in the Wagga district. Today, there are 77 brigades in the Riverina Zone alone and 2,029 across the state. In total, the NSW Rural Fire Service has over 74,000 volunteers.