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Bushfires 1967

Roseneath at Austins Ferry after the 1967 fires (AOT, PH30/1/1281)

The bushfires which attacked Hobart and adjacent areas of Southern Tasmania in the summer of 1966–67, peaking on 7 February, produced one of the most damaging natural disasters ever experienced in Australia. Such a disaster is a social event resulting from the impact of a disaster agent on a settled community. In this case some 653,000 acres of Southern Tasmania burned. In the short space of four or five hours on that 'Black Tuesday', the burning caused the deaths of 62 people, destroyed about 1,400 buildings (mostly homes, but also factories, schools, hotels, post offices, churches and halls), savagely disrupted communications and power facilities, and destroyed about 1,500 cars and trucks. The fires also did massive damage to surrounding farms, pastures and livestock, and total monetary damage was assessed at about $40 million (at 1967 values).

Ironically, but also in common with many other world disaster situations, this disaster produced an economic boon, with an estimated $34 million injected into the state's economy in quick time, mostly from resulting commonwealth grants and loans (14.5m), insurance recoveries (over $10m – at that time, the biggest payout in Australian history), and distributions from a public relief fund ($5.1m) and a number of other private (church, service club, etc) relief funds.

In the social reconstruction after the burning, a number of the 'emergent groups' familiar in the disaster literature were active. In particular, the Fire Victims' Welfare Organisation assisted many thousands of people whose lives had been disrupted, and the social work experience acquired in the Tasmanian disaster carried over to the Brisbane flooding of January 1974 and Darwin's Cyclone Tracy disaster of December 1974. The Tasmanian firestorm was one of four major disasters hitting Australian urban settlements in the short space of seven years (the other was the strike of Cyclone Althea in Townsville in 1972), and this conjunction produced a strong movement for the improvement of national disaster management machinery.

Further reading: DM Chambers & CG Brettingham-Moore, 'The Bush Fire Disaster of 7th February 1967', Parliamentary Paper 16/1967; Roger Wettenhall, Bushfire Disaster: An Australian Community in Crisis, Sydney, 1975; Roger Wettenhall, 'Organisation and Disaster: The 1967 Bushfires in Southern Tasmania', in L Heathcote & B Thom (eds), Natural Hazards in Australia, Canberra, 1979.

Roger Wettenhall