EXACTLY 45 years ago today, many parts of Tasmania including the Derwent Valley were devastated by one of Australia’s worst natural disasters. Tuesday, February 7, 1967, saw the island engulfed by its worst-ever bushfires. Fires raged from Hamilton and Bothwell down to the Huon and Channel. Sixty-two people were killed, hundreds injured and thousands left homeless.
Teamwork saved the Derwent Valley from untold disaster, but the damage was extensive with 65 homes and one life lost. Firefighters, teachers, senior schoolboys, papermakers, the general public, inmates from Hayes Prison Farm and staff and patients from Royal Derwent Hospital worked side-by-side to battle the ferocious fires. Black Tuesday claimed one victim in the Derwent Valley – elderly Miss Elsie Boyer whose body was found in the ruins of historic Kilburn Grange homestead at New Norfolk.
“65 DV homes lost, fire danger is still critical” was the headline in the Derwent Valley Gazette on Friday, February 10, 1967. Gazette correspondents reported scenes of destruction throughout the Valley, including Molesworth, Lachlan, Boyer, Magra, Sorell Creek, Plenty, Dromedary, Granton, Hamilton, Gretna, Hollow Tree and Bushy Park.
The flames struck viciously at Magra during the morning of February 7, and then raced on to Norfolk North and Boyer. Within 15 minutes, houses up to 800 metres apart burst into flames. The clubhouse at the New Norfolk Golf Club was completely destroyed. Quick work by the fire brigade and Charlie Cawthorn stopped a serious blaze near Oast St from spreading to the nearby ANM Hostel (now Rosie’s Inn) and surrounding residential area.
Fires broke out in the extensive grounds of the Royal Derwent Hospital all afternoon and the only hope of controlling them was with the help of staff and patients. About 26 of the patients were from the hospital’s security ward and all received commendations for their efforts. Later that night, the New Norfolk Hospital sent supplies to the New Norfolk War Memorial Hall where an emergency centre had been established.
Male teachers and most senior boys from New Norfolk High School fought fires at Lachlan and Sorell Creek. Many other students fought a fire that broke out below the school hostel and fire breaks were ploughed all over the school property.
Seven hundred ANM (now Norske Skog) workers helped to save the Boyer mill from destruction. A major fire broke out around 1pm and 50 spot fires had erupted around the mill in a matter of minutes. Losses at the mill exceeded $1 million ($11 million today).
In the weeks that followed, more than 60 notices of thanks were published in the Gazette as residents of the Derwent Valley got on with the job of rebuilding their lives.
Article adapted from “The day the sky turned black”, by Damian Bester, Derwent Valley Gazette, February 12, 1997.