Movie transcript

(LEAVES RUSTLE) (BIRDS CHIRP) This is our spot where we used to walk down to Blue Gum Forest, straight down here, and there’s the canyon to Govetts Leap and this is our camping spot over here where we camped down in the Grose River right in front of us there. There was no sign of fire or anything, but in the distance we could see smoke.

NARRATOR: The summer of 1957 was a bad season for wildfire. The Blue Mountains were often under threat. Drought, heat and tinder-dry conditions saw rolling outbreaks of serious fires culminating in the worst bushfires in New South Wales’ history racing across the mountains. Saturday the 30th of November was a taste of things to come. When we got down to Blue Gum Forest, we could see something, you know, was happening.

NARRATOR: Frightened by the sudden smell of smoke, nine teenage boys raced for Perry’s Lookdown. What they didn’t know was that a wildfire was raging straight towards them. Scrambling the steep track to safety, they were suddenly overtaken by the fire. When I looked behind like this, I seen the flames coming and you see them at the top of the trees 50 or 60 feet high. It was right on us. It was right on us. Unbelievable.

NARRATOR: The first four boys on the track tried to outrun the fire up the slope, but group leader Barry told the last four boys to run back down through the flames.

IVAN THELANDER: He just said, Ditch our packs, and run. I grabbed Ross Jordon by the hand and pulled him through the flames and I never seen Barry, but the other four boys, we got together and we all made our way down, stumbling over rocks and creeks, hiding in little canyons full of leeches and that. Everything… Our packs were burnt. Everything.

NARRATOR: Fire continues to be a threat in the Blue Mountains. The community lives perched high above a bushfire-prone World Heritage national park.

MAN: I’m sure a lot of people that build in the bush – they love the bush, we all love the bush – don’t realise the problem that may occur. If they’ve lived through a fire, through the fires, they know the danger of the fires, but there are so many new people coming to the area who have not experienced anything to do with a fire.

NARRATOR: Many people aren’t aware how susceptible the Blue Mountains still are to bushfires and don’t know the story of the ’57 fires. NEWSREEL ANNOUNCER: And then the worst disaster of all – at Leura and Wentworth Falls in the Blue Mountains, a fire races up the valley without warning and strikes with merciless speed on a day the people of the mountains will never forget.

NARRATOR: Only two days after the Grose Valley fire, Monday, December the 2nd was the day that the heart of Leura was decimated.

WOMAN: I lived on the railway in Railway House on the highway and all along here used to be a road. You used to go down Highland Street. And over here in the corner, there was a little mixed business and further along was the Lorana Flats where people used to live. Further up the highway was the big Chateau Napier.

NARRATOR: The legendary Chateau Napier Guesthouse was a landmark on the hill above Leura Village. Well, the cordial factory, it was a big building and that was in the middle there. BMC was the brand – Blue Mountains Cordials. Then up there was a garage opposite…alongside of the factory. And then here was a centre where they made baskets and everything else. Well, where the Westpac now stands, the top end where the doors are was Bernie Perryman’s hairdressing salon – the only one in Leura – and the bottom half was Jim Wilson’s electrical store.

NARRATOR: At 11:20 in the morning, Katoomba fire station got a report of a fire in north Katoomba. It was about… Just before lunch.

TRICIA HOGAN: Mum said, I’ve just done my shopping,

I thought I’d have some lunch with you.” But she said, “I don’t like the look of that cloud there. It looks really bad. I said, “What cloud?” Dropped the chickens off to Mr Downer. I came back via the hospital and as I came around the corner here along the Great Western Highway, near the hospital, coming from the vicinity of the tip – I’m not saying it came from the tip, but it came from that vicinity – this great ball of black smoke.

NARRATOR: At 12:53, fire was also reported in Queens Road, Katoomba. We lived on the corner out by Mount Hay Road up there. First I went to school at the Catholic… ..St Canice’s in Katoomba.

NARRATOR: A teacher saw smoke and raised the alarm.

MICK LE BRETON: And he said, “All Leura boys, come out to the veranda,” and he showed us the back of Leura and it was well alight, and he said, “Good luck, boys.” We thought, “How lucky can you get? Because we’re out of here.”

NARRATOR: Mick and his brothers were sent off to walk home to Leura down the highway past the Katoomba Hospital. They didn’t know it, but the fire was racing around the back of the hospital and heading for the highway. And by the time I got down to Queens Road, the fire had gotten to the highway and the house was alight there and as I drove along the highway towards Leura, Pop, pop, pop, actually the fire was going faster than I was.

NARRATOR: Frightening north-westerly winds pushed the fire down from north Katoomba. It raced up the gullies. It took out 14 houses in Highland Street and nine houses in North Mall alone. All the houses now along where we are, they were either burnt or burning. I worked here in Leura at a grocery shop. At lunchtime, I had gone back to work, I heard the fire brigades going and all the smoke was all coming over from the North Mall. And the fire came in sort of from the west first and then it created its own momentum and it just went straight up Rawson Parade, Highland Street, and took everything in its path.

MARY MCPHILLIPS: A mixed business, the grocery shop and all the flats that were there, they were all burnt. The Baptist Church got burnt. There was a house the other side of it. That got burnt as well. And as I went up the hill the Chateau Napier went, “Woof!” Just like that – a great burst of flame. It was amazing. This great heat shock and this ball of fiery embers rose up. And we just stopped because the sun was over there and it was so huge and bright red through this huge cloud. The next thing, all this ash came down on us.

NARRATOR: By 1:30, north Leura was blazing and the fire now threatened the shops in Leura Mall.

MARY MCPHILLIPS: Everybody wasn’t prepared for this. They just had to run out of their homes just like… You know, with nothing, more or less. Just what they stood up in.

JOHN GABRIEL: The fire brigade went out and volunteers were called, Anybody who can come, come. And people, untrained, went to fight fires with wet sacks and branches. And up there on the hill as well there was a little Catholic school where the Sacred Heart nuns used to teach and that got burnt.

TRICIA HOGAN: The nuns came down with 35 to 40 children screaming and they said, Can you mind the children?

We’ve gotta go back and save the convent. It’s right behind the convent. So we were left with all these screaming children. Luckily, cars started to come from nowhere, people with handkerchiefs over their faces, Give me some children,give me some children. We’ll take them out of here.”

NARRATOR: A fire front headed east and took out houses in Britain and Churchill streets on its way down to Leura Primary School. And it continued on straight down and devoured the school.

NARRATOR: People also remember flames rushing up out of the gully to engulf the school from behind.

KEITH HARRIS: I drove down Railway Parade to try and pick up the kids, but everybody was leaving the school because of the fire, which was in the process of burning down the bridge.

NARRATOR: Children were fleeing on the old wooden footbridge over the railway line even as it was burning.

KEITH HARRIS: They managed to get across the bridge and they were all running down Grose Street where the little wallaby was leading them, see? He was hopping down there. I don’t know where he finished up at, but he was in front anyhow. It was terrible. All the children from the two schools – the public school and the Catholic school – they ran down the Mall trying to get away from the fires. Most of the places that burnt down didn’t burn down through direct contact with fire. It was through embers.

NARRATOR: The howling winds fanned embers into roofs, eaves and fences, destroying houses long after the fire front had passed through. In north Leura, Mick and his brothers walked home through a trail of destruction. That one there, it was there, but the rest, they were all destroyed. You can see, they were all… The houses have been burned out. That’s me brother’s place. It had a doctor’s residence here and it burnt down. That was burnt down and that… that was burnt down. That was burnt down.

NARRATOR: The boys made it home to Mount Hay Road only to find their own house destroyed. So me mum went up onto the clearing. She was with a neighbour and me uncle and me sister Mary – she was six weeks old. So she raced down and all she could get was 12 eggs and she always curses to this day that she lost one egg, dropped an egg there.

NARRATOR: By two o’clock, the flames were racing towards Wentworth Falls. People say the fire was coming in two fronts – from the direction of the Grose Valley and down the highway as well. And I just pulled the roller doors down at the factory and came up here because I had all my glory box here. And all my mum’s front fence was burning. And they let the school kids out, which is only in the next street. I was 10 years old and I was a pupil at Wentworth Falls Primary School.

NARRATOR: The children from Wentworth Falls Primary and the grammar school were taken down to the lake nearby for safety. I don’t really remember getting here to the lake. I remember that the fires came through…

WOMAN: There was clearing beside Millers House and we were put into little groups and covered with blankets.

SUSAN KEMPT: ..and I remember them proceeding to put the blankets around us and over us and then turning the hoses on us. I don’t remember whether we were hosed or whether buckets of water was thrown onto the blankets, but I remember being under the blankets, which was kind of a bit of fun.

NARRATOR: Susan’s father was out fighting in his local brigade only to find out that his own home had caught fire. My father was actually… The fire brigade was actually out the front of our home, which was burning. We jumped down to his place, so we run the hoses in and called out, “Water!” Nothing. It just dribbled out. And we all stood in his front yard and watched his home burn to the ground.

NARRATOR: Back in Leura, the fire had leapt the highway to the south side and was racing towards the golf course. I said, “Dad, Dad! Hey, look!” And we came out and of course there was the fire and we raced down to Mistral, which was a house he had let out on Scott Avenue down the end of Railway Parade. There were Hungarian people in there and they were doing sewing. They had this great big sewing machine. Dad and I are getting it out through the front door and the back door of the house flew open and there was tank stand out the back and that burst into flames and the flames came straight up the hall behind us. We jumped over the sewing machine and the whole house went, “Woof!”

NARRATOR: Another front came up to destroy shops in Leura Village and homes in Leura Mall and Jersey Avenue. When we looked around, there was the hairdressing salon going up and the electrical shop. It had come right behind the shops and took those two shops straight out and the Presbyterian Church down on the other end. I remember the ’57 fires very clearly – only pictures because I was only eight years old, but the pictures in my head were when I was standing beside the firemen that were fighting the fire just behind me, hosing down the backyard, so we got into the car and drove out through all the smoke. And these fireballs were going out ahead of the fire – I’ve never seen anything like it – and suddenly they would land somewhere and, of course, everything was tinder-dry and it would just go.

MARY MCPHILLIPS: Well, it was terrible. It just ran up all the houses up here and further up Jersey Avenue. This was all vacant. It was a big block of land. And then there was a house that was partly burnt, another one completely burnt and further up Jersey Avenue.

JIM CHIVAS: I can remember the chaos because there was no… ..real coordination or management. The Bushfire Brigades had been disbanded a couple of years previously.

NARRATOR: The water supply didn’t last long as the reservoirs quickly ran dry.

JIM CHIVAS: So there was just nothing. When you turned on a garden hose, nothing trickled out. We had all the animals inside and we were filling all the gutters up with water and I just grabbed a few things and then someone said to me, The factory’s on fire,
the cordial factory.

JOHN GABRIEL: But this wall of flame, like a huge ocean wave, came up out of the gully.

FRAN HARRIS: It just came up with such intense heat and the roar of it… You’ve got no idea of the noise it made. The flames went in a huge wave over them and over the top of the road and over the houses and dropped in the bush behind it. Once the fire got hold of that sugar, the smell of it was absolutely rotten, burnt sugar. Bottles were just popping. You know, everything was just exploding. Within probably three-quarters of an hour the whole thing just burnt to the ground. Everything was gone. That church was the only thing left standing, the only thing out of all of this here. That church was the only thing left.

NARRATOR: The fire destroyed six buildings in Station Street including Wright’s Garage and the rehabilitation centre.

MARY MCPHILLIPS: I had the boss’s two children because they lived over the North Mall and they couldn’t get home. So she said, “Take the children,” and I got a lift to Katoomba and I stayed up there for all of the duration of the fires.

TRICIA HOGAN: Mick was 21 months. Shane was six months. They were in the pram. I just grabbed a few things – nappies and some milk and my wedding album – and we came back out onto the Mall and Mr Bickman, our fire area chief, he said, “You’ve gotta get out of here. The police are down on the corner.
They’ve shut the Mall.

You’ve got to go.” And then we didn’t really know till the next morning how many shops were burnt because there wasn’t the communication like there is today. I had a horrible… I hate saying this because I get all upset, but on the way to Katoomba I thought… I was only 25 and I was only married three years, two babies. I thought, “We’re not gonna get out of this. We’re not gonna have a life. It was, um… You just didn’t know if you were going to go home to a home or to rubble.

NARRATOR: In the space of a few hours the 1957 fire of Monday, December the 2nd destroyed over 170 homes as well as businesses, shops and schools. Thousands of hectares of bush were torched and hundreds of people were left homeless. (SOMBRE MUSIC) It’s grim tally. The numbers of houses shown lost in each of these streets are a stark reminder of the widespread devastation. Since 1957, the Blue Mountains community has continued to face bushfires. There was fires in 1957, 1968, 1977, ’94, 2001. You know, they’ve been bad in Blackheath and Springwood, Winmalee, all down there. It’s just burnt homes and property. In the 1977 fire, there were no properties here – these properties have all been built since – and the fire came up very hot and strong up here. I now live in Medlow Bath and just 18 months or so after I’d moved there there was a major fire in the Megalong Valley that jumped the escarpment and went around my house. And we had a really big one on the south side, which was known as the Mount Hall Fire and it basically stretched from Tableland Road all the way down to Glenbrook. In September 2011, one of the neighbours gave us a call – it was about four o’clock in the morning – and said that there was a fire to the west of us burning very, very slowly. And then at eight o’clock I was in the kitchen and I looked up and two doors away I could see the flames. Now, the ‘catastrophic’ fires or even the ‘severe’ to ‘extreme’ fires are comparatively rare. Most fires we can control if the fire danger is not too severe, but there’s the odd one that is just uncontrollable. My main concern is any fire that comes from the north-west. If there’s a very strong wind and there’s a fire in that direction, then we’ll be subject to ember attack and that’s the one that concerns me.

NARRATOR: Bushfire is an important part of the ecology in the Blue Mountains, but because of climate change conditions ripe for catastrophic fires will become more common. The 1957 fire was a catalyst for changing how bushfires are fought and every major fire since has led to further improvements. (FIREFIGHTERS SPEAK INDISTINCTLY) Things are totally different to the early days. The equipment is vastly improved and it’s continued to improve over time. You have the helicopters and planes that drop the water. And we have the benefit of a lot more knowledge about fire behaviour, which keeps increasing. And there’s a more scientific approach to fires – the cause of fires, the control of fires. A lot of science is now looking at bushfire behaviour. The advantage of being part of the CFU is that we’re very much prepared for anything that comes through, we’ve protected our properties, keep the areas clear wherever possible. One of the other advantages is the sense of community. We’ve got to know everybody in the street.

NARRATOR: Some of us might be better prepared for fighting bushfires now, but the community of 1957 showed incredible resilience in picking themselves back up after their catastrophe.

TOM COLLESS: Well, I guess everybody was in shock because there was no power, no water and a lot of homes destroyed and a lot of distressed people and everyone just sort of did their best. We had lots of ducks and chooks and a billygoat and various animals and most of them had been burnt or injured and a friend’s father came and destroyed them. Yes, well, when they first discovered us, when they first run into us they made us sit down and we were given some sandwiches. The look on Sergeant Sanderson’s and the other two constables’ faces I’ll never forget.

NARRATOR: The group’s leader, Barry Carter, had run eight kilometres in bare feet through the bush to get help for the boys. I had blisters in me mouth, the ear, all my ear, my left ear, and on the arm. I was taken into hospital. All me hair was burnt, singed. And, of course, there was no electricity, no phones, no gas, no nothing, but I had a fuel stove and I thought, “Dare I put it on?” because the men were still in… The fire brigade were still in the Mall trying to hose everything down and they’d been working for six or seven hours nonstop. Yeah, we better make them a cup of tea and sandwiches so we’ll make everybody some.” Don and Jack even turned up with all the beer, so that was good for the firefighters, yeah. By four o’clock, there would have been 20 cakes and food enough for weeks by the people from which we considered then the ‘rich’ people of Leura, from south Leura. They were wonderful. They’d just drop it and say, “G’day,” and go. People were so kind and giving and unbelievable, yep.

TRICIA HOGAN: Well, that night we had a few people come to the door because they still couldn’t find their children. Not everybody had phones in those days. It wasn’t… You know, we were only a small community and not very affluent and people just had to keep going around and asking people for their children. People just had to sort of get on with their lives. You know, we all… People that could go to work the next day, we just got up and went to work. We had no counselling or nothing. Everybody went round and everybody pitched in with what they had extra to give people to sustain their cupboards and what they’d lost, you know? But then you heard of all the other people who’d lost their homes by going back to work the next day and it was hard to sort of talk to them about it because you knew that they had lost their homes. It was a terrible thing for them to happen. All any of us had was what we were standing up in. We had no other clothes, no possessions, nothing. That was it – just what we were standing in. Up in Main Street, Katoomba, where the medical centre is now there was the old David Jones clothing factory. It was a big empty building, so we set up a relief centre there and we got great cooperation from the council. The next day we a truck arrived from Bebarfald’s. It was full of mattresses. We had about a hundred mattresses. That was the first truck that arrived. Well, from that day on stuff was coming. Nock & Kirby sent these pots and pans. Anthony Hordern’s… There was blankets, clothing… There was stuff coming from everywhere! They had trestle tables out with clothing and things that people had donated and we were taken around and basically clothed from that. And then we had to find accommodation. That was another job that I took on, trying to find accommodation for people who had nowhere to live. Lions – they were very good. They built little places for the people that lost their homes on their properties.

SUSAN KEMPT: In the couple of weeks after the fires the Lions Club built sheds, which were garage-sized with a small corner with a sink and things in.

MICK LE BRETON: The Lions Club built us a little house. They built, like, 150 of those they built in Leura and stuff like that all in one weekend. They just turned up on a Saturday morning with trucks and truckloads of stuff and 20 or 30 blokes and got stuck into it.

NARRATOR: All that remained of Leura Primary were the front steps, and when the new school was built they kept those front steps as a reminder of that terrible day. Oh, it made me very mindful of the fact that we live in a dangerous area. When I built this factory here I put in water – two very large water tanks. We’ve got over 100,000 litres of water, which we capture from the roof.

RON SALZ: One of the first things we had to put in was fire protection – the thick glass – all double glazing – all under-house spaces to be protected, the cladding material has to be nonflammable. Aluminium and nylon gauze on your windows – that’s a no-no. It’s gotta be steel. And people up here should look to have some sort of idea where the safe places are to go, make sure they don’t have trees hanging over their roofs, that they’ve got a hose that’s long enough to reach every corner of their property. You can’t rely on other people to come and do things for you. No, I think everybody needs to take responsibility for their own property. It’s not possible to have a fire truck turn up outside every property. You get a major fire and it’s fresh in people’s minds, but then over time, you know, some people tend to… They shut it out or they forget or they just go back to normal. I think there are many people who think the fires won’t come again or that they will be protected, but the speed with which it hits is unbelievable.

IVAN THELANDER: We asked them, How are the other boys? and Sergeant Sanderson led us in prayer and told us, you know, the boys had passed on. He said, “You’ll have to pass the bodies, but they will be covered up in white canvas, and that’s how… That was it. We are thinking of you today. God bless you, one and all.