In February 1937 a raging bushfire fanned by gale force winds swept with fierce intensity through the Denmark district and westwards through acres of forest and farmland. At the same time the Manjimup district suffered severe losses and irrecoverable damage. Fires in both districts created destruction, tragedy and hardship.
Fires were still burning more than a week later in the Mt Shadforth, Tingledale and Walpole areas and, though the worst was over, danger still threatened.
An official party toured the district to assess the damage, which was estimated at about 50,000 pounds from Denmark to Nornalup. Homes, possessions, bridges, culverts, and huge timbers were destroyed. Properties, buildings, boats moored on the river in Nornalup were destroyed and the Frankland River Bridge in Nornalup was reduced to a grotesque picture of blackened piles.
Many of the beautiful forest giants in the Valley of the Giants were badly fire-damaged as were forest trees in other areas. Years were to pass before they recovered. In fact some are a grim reminder of that February day; too badly damaged to recover. “Stags” are visible high in the trees in the bush on the main road into Walpole from Bow Bridge.
Two apiarists in the district at the time (Worth and Coad) had what was a miraculous escape as they raced to safety from where their hives were situated, with the ground fire advancing only yards behind them. What was more terrifying was that the fire in the tops of the trees was actually racing ahead of them!
The story of Hazelvale school teacher Douglas Stuart has been told many times. He had only been in the district a short time. As the fire approached he sent all the children home and then gathered up a few valuables, tore the top off the water tank and, after covering his face and head with cloths, immersed himself in the water. From time to time he bravely left this comparative safety to extinguish spot fires threatening the school building and later was heard to say that “it was a terrifying experience.”
Due to the efforts of all the district did recover but memories of “the ’37 fire” lived on.
The final paragraph of an article written in February 1977 ran thus:
“There has not been another fire to equal this one nor would there want to be. With today’s policy of protective burning of forest country, there should never be such an inferno to ravage the beauty of the bush or to cause untold tragedy and heartbreak to settlers.”
These notes are taken from an article I wrote for the Albany Advertiser in 1977. Information given to me since indicates that the strong winds were the aftermath of a cyclone. — Molly Smith