Image for Reviewed! Flames of Fear

by Roger McNeice. OAM.
Wellington Bridge Press.
Suggested retail:  $75.
Available at all Tasmanian book shops.

Many Tasmanians still have vivid memories of the the 7th February 1967 bushfires.  Others may have heard of them, but are short on detail. It is now a long time ago - 50 years. There is no doubt that the disaster had significant impact on Tasmania and its community.  A new book, “Flames of Fear” has been released with the sub-heading, “A photographic and documentary history of the fear and devastation caused by bushfires in Tasmania since 1820.” It is therefore not just a book on the ‘67 fires, but the history of bushfires in Tasmania.

Its author, Tasmanian identity, Roger McNeice OAM is well known for his knowledge on coins, medals and tokens.  He has a number of books to his credit, his previous being, “Fight the Fiery Fiend” - Colonial Fire Fighting 1803-1883. He is well qualified to author “Flames of Fear” being involved with fire fighting since 1968.

As cited by Chief Officer, Tasmania Fire Service, Chris Arnol, in the Foreword, “This book chronicles the history of bushfires in Tasmania.  The author has invested seven years in researching and compiling his historical account of events.”

There are fifteen chapters in the book, more than half of which as one would expect, deal with Black Tuesday 1967.  As Chris Arnol adds, “It is brimming with stories, quotations, and wonderful anecdotes, which allow the reader to immerse themselves in the events described.”

The ‘67 fires were an incredible experience, albeit a terrible one.  Sixty four Tasmanians lost their lives. Roger includes the important chronological timespan regarding the fire on that day. (P.54-55). From 12:45pm it spread rapidly and within the hour it had travelled from Lenah Valley into Strickland Avenue, South Hobart. It would spread to Fern Tree, Longley, The Channel, Kingston, Taroona, Margate, Snug, Oyster Cove, Kettering, Woodbridge, Middleton and the Huon, besides many other areas.  I can remember it even reached Chigwell, Pitcairn Street Glenorchy and the Hobart Domain.

It is a grand record of that terrible event, now so long ago. As often the case, great stories of heroism and selflessness comes to the fore and Roger deals with many of these “ordinary” people who rose to the need.  One he describes as the “Hero of Middleton,”, Ernie Bond and his full story is related from page 105 onwards.

The book deals with the immediate aftermath of the fires, while revealing the human and financial costs.  Roger writes:  “The fires hit with a vengeance and many schools were engulfed by smoke and flames. 

“Soon after the fires went through various areas, vivid stories of survival and fear soon surfaced as headmasters reported to the Education Department.  Forty teachers lost their homes and possessions although no lives were lost”

On can only imagine the terror experienced by the children and staff.  He relates:  “When the fire hit Collinsvale the whole school area was completely surrounded by smoke and flames” and continues to relate the story of a 15 year old Leonard Russell of Geeveston, who saved the lives of four children. (p.183)

Fire-fighting since then has improved dramatically. Back in ‘67 there were no computers, four wheel drives and no aerial water assistance. Roger’s chapter, “Fire Management” deals with much of this.  Fires, however, are clearly a constant threat to Tasmania as recently witnessed by Dunalley and the east coast fires of 2014 and just this week, near to my home, the hills of Lindisfarne and Geilston Bay.

The author has done a mighty work. He has the style to bring the whole episode into the present allowing the reader to experience the anxiousness, the horror and the urgency of it all.  It contains stupendous photographs, both black and white, colour, old and new. It is a big book, hard cover, 370 glossy pages, with the ever important, bibliography and index. A resource for the personal, private and public library as well as a coffee-table book.  Thoroughly recommended.

*Reg Watson is a Tasmanian historian and author with 48 years of published experience. His articles (now in excess of a thousand)  has been published locally, nationally and internationally.  He has 17 books to his credit and is often interviewed on radio/television. He regularly is invited as a guest speaker at various functions, service clubs, associations and historical groups.