Brown Coal Mine Fire - 1944

Article from "Link" Issue 51, Nov 2011 - information from Morwell Historical Society:
"In 1941, a flax mill was built in Morwell to supply raw material for webbing belts used by the military. Flax supplied by local farms and those from further afield was transported by road or rail to be processed at the factory in Latrobe Road. Flax is oily and needs to be dried so stacks of raw flax were piled high around the mill before being laid out in paddocks to dry.
On 14 February 1944, a series of grass fires started in the afternoon and swept south through the Latrobe Valley killing 13 people, injuring many more and devastating 100 homes. The flax mill was a casualty too and undoubtedly caused more homes on the northern side of Morwell in Papyrus St to be lost. The flax from the piles around the mill was blown ahead of the fire front on the gale force winds and showered the homes with burning and destructive embers.
The town water supply was diverted to save the flax mill but this effort was unsuccessful. The mill was lost and never rebuilt.
The 1944 fires were widespread and severe. Many areas of the state were affected but the LV region was impacted most severely. From Jeeralang to Hernes Oak, property was lost, infrastructure damaged and destroyed and many people injured or killed. The open cut at Yallourn burned for days; cattle, sheep and horses died in their hundreds and telecommunication lines were cut."

Helen Menadue wrote: the glow in the sky that afternoon has never been forgotten. This fire spread through the bush to Hernes Oak (Haunted Hills). There was a loss of 9 lives and 136 houses destroyed and many acres of land. The bush opposite Parkway that night was like Fairy Land. The wind blew the sparks from the tops of the tall burning trees - still a vivid memory. The fire somehow entered the front entrance of the school in the afternoon. The palm trees lining the front entrance were alight with the male teachers and Head Master battling the flames (no doubt saving the school). All students were instructed to go to the school oval and lie flat down, put a chip or hankie in our mouth as a strong hot wind dry and dusty was blowing. Once the 'all clear' was given, Miss Jensen, the Cookery teacher, organised students to assist in the school kitchen to prepare a meal for students and staff. It was still not safe for students to return home. Several of we juniors with shopping lists were sent to the General Store to purchase ingredients for sandwiches, etc. Refreshments were soon at the ready for all. Our mother was at home at 56 Parkway making blackberry jam over a hot wood stove. Alerted to leave home to go to the old swimming hole pool, Margery 6 weeks of age in the cane pram, plus deed box, father's shirts, Juneth and John walking alonside the pram. Winter rains of 1944 was a new experience. By Spring, the bush was lush green. Parkway children, two families of Hendersons, Stephens, Menadues and others spent many Saturdays trampling through the new green undergrowth finding new wild flowers. One of the Henderson boys (not wearing shoes) months later trod on a smouldering stump and burnt the soles of his feet. Later a school excursion was held to see the destruction of the Mountain Ash Plantation on Mt Baw Baw left an impression of loss.

Tom Pritchett wrote: my earliest memory of Yallourn when I was very young were the terrible fires that surrounded the town. I remember all of us littlies were grouped in houses near the town centre while the adults went to the swimming pool. I also remember the soldiers marching down to the oval where they were stationed. There were gun emplacements around the town and air-raid shelters at the schools and houses. The theatre had a brick maze at the front.

Jean Hattam wrote: during my life in Yallourn, I saw the Yallourn North Open Cut on fire – it was a pretty sight to me – all sparkling. Children could not get to Morwell or Moe as roads were blocked. Lives were lost at Haunted Hills (later called Hernes Oak).

Bob Garvin wrote: a bush fire entered the open cut and surrounded the Yallourn township, which was severely threatened. As people had been trained in Air Raid Precautions and with outside help from hundreds of army and air force servicemen, together with volunteers from Melbourne, the township was saved from any damage to houses or deaths. I remember my sister Chris, who was a High School student, collected me from Primary School and took me home hanging onto the fences all the way as we could not see through the thick heavy smoke. There were nine deaths and 136 houses destroyed in Hernes Oak, Morwell and Traralgon.

Year: 
1944
Date: 
14/02/1944

Comment

I only went to the High School for one year 1944. My class could see the thick smoke coming from the Hernes Oak direction. All pupils had to wait in the large part of the schoolyard to be collected by family. Some hedges and shrubs were alight and the wind became stronger blowing grit and small stones everywhere. Most of that evening was spent in many cases in St THerese's School until it was OK to go home