25 November, 2021
“I thought we were a goner.”
This is how Rob Beveridge remembers the devastating fire that swept through the district on November 19, 1951.
The Gilgandra Weekly, published three days after the event, led with a front page headline of “£1,000,000 FIRE DAMAGE”.
The blaze was reported as being “the greatest outbreak of fire ever known to mankind in the west”. Its impact was compared to that of an atomic bomb
“30,000 sheep and eight homes destroyed. Thousands of miles of fencing and grass lost. Indescribable damage resembles attack from atomic bomb. By nightfall it had spread over an area extending 50 miles, and at times was 10 miles wide, leaving a trail of death, destruction, and desolation that had never before been known to any part of the state.”
Mr Beveridge was 22-years-old at the time of the fire and can remember the adrenaline pumping through his body like it was yesterday.
“The wind was roaring from the northwest when it started,” said Mr Beveridge.
“Just as it got behind our property, the wind turned south and came right across us. The flames were, judging by trees, 30 feet high. There was a lot of grass around there at that time, everything was very dry. It had been a very good winter.”
The fire swept from the back of Collie, all the way through to Armatree. Mr Beveridge recalls many stories from that day, some that are still unbelievable, even to himself.
“Looking back on it, the things I did that day were quite incredible. I was out on the Collie Road, I went into a place there, the boss of the place went chasing the fire, he would have been miles away by then. I got there and he had left his tractor in the middle of the stubble paddock, and I went and got it, and drove it out to what I thought was a bare patch.
“There were horses in stables, and I left them out, because I thought they were safer out of the stable then they were in it, in the yard still.
“I often think about it. Looking back on it, I really hadn’t had any sleep until midday the next day. I was running off adrenaline.”
Mr Beveridge and his family hadn’t been in the Tooraweenah area for long. At the time the fire spread to their property, his father wasn’t home, and the fire brigade were all run off volunteers who would have been fighting their own fires.
“There was no sign of my father, who I found out later had gone to fight a fire starting up at the Armatree bridge there,” said Mr Beveridge.
A shearer who was living on Mr Beveridge’s property, was asked to put sheep onto a dam bank. Mr Beveridge didn’t think he would see him again.
“I went around the corner, and there was this man who’d been on the horse putting the sheep in. I had never been so relieved in all my life, I really thought I’d let him go, to murder him.
“He made that horse jump two fences to get home, which absolutely astounded me. I’ve never jumped that horse, I’ve ridden him a lot, but never jumped him. I couldn’t believe it. But there he was.”
The Beveridge’s wool shed was alight, and it took Mr Beveridge and their shearer to put it out.
“My father came home, and he was basically blind from the fire he was fighting, he couldn’t see anything. The two of us, the worker and myself, worked on that wool shed. The counting out shoots were alight, the manure caught alight underneath the shed, and we worked all night until just on daybreak.
“My father looked down through the grazier, and he said ‘oh its useless. Everything’s alight down there’. But it turned out to be the sun reflecting underneath.
“We had saved it. We still stand in the wool shed,” said Mr Beveridge.
Sheer luck is what saved the Beveridge’s homestead.
“The fire came through and it caught the house underneath the veranda,” said Mr Beveridge.
“It was very close, very soon after it started obviously, and I looked down and there’s the tap with the hose on it. So I just put the water on it, dam water, and I put it out. Saved the house.”
However, not every community member was as lucky. Nola Patrick was pregnant at the time of the fire, so remained in town.
“Our homestead burnt down,” said Mrs Patrick.
“Some people stayed, hosed their houses and saved them. The devil was in the wind that day.”
While the clean-up took years, survivors were scarred for life. Mr Beveridge is now terrified of fire.
“I am very frightened. I see things up here in Cooee village, and I always make remarks about mowing the grass out from there, and that sort of thing, just in case.”
William Johnson, a district grazier, lost his life in the fires, while his friend Mervyn Gaynon, who was with him suffered severe facial and hand burns.