Burnt Memories

by Graham Rawlings

Listening to the distress surrounding the people who have been unfortunate enough to need to be evacuated from their homes during the recent wildfires in British Columbia evokes memories in my own life where fire has been a factor. Those memories are not only visual but also include the smells and sounds which are stored away to take me back to those earlier occasions. Some are frightening, some sad, and some traumatic.

My family was caught in the Black Tuesday bush fires in Hobart, Tasmania in 1967, a tragedy that claimed 64 lives as it swept through the suburbs of the city and beyond. It was fast, devastating and had long term repercussions on people and the community in general. Hobart is dominated by Mount Wellington to the west and the slopes overlook the Derwent estuary to the east. Over the years residential development had occurred on the picturesque slopes particularly where sea views were to be had. The dominant trees were eucalypts. Within five hours not only were those lives lost but 7,000 people were left homeless, 900 were injured and 80,000 head of stock were also lost. The fire jumped from crown to crown with frightening speed as the trees caught fire explosively. Miraculously our house did not catch fire despite the proximity of high trees, yet neighbours lost theirs. I was out of town in the north of the island during the worst of the blaze but my wife and children were evacuated to the beach a kilometre away and huddled there under blankets as red-hot cinders rained down on them. Fortuitously in the late afternoon the wind changed direction and the fire was redirected back on its path but the main damage had been done by then.

My recollection is not only of the smoke but the pervasive smell of burnt wood, a smell that would come back to me long afterwards but also reawaken earlier memories of another event many years previously. Others write of the silence as people counted their losses and looked towards an uncertain future as the fire moved on. That silence was not long lived however as the chain saws burst into activity with damaged trees being felled and owners enlarging their properties hopefully to minimize future risks from fires in the regrowth.

Yet that smell of burnt wood reawakened another earlier smell in my memory, that was in 1944 when the village in which I was brought up some 20 miles north of London, UK, was on the line of incendiary bombs dropped en route from the Thames to the De Havilland aircraft manufacturing plant in Hatfield. Walking to school took me past the smouldering ruins of our local grocery store bombed just the night before and that smell of burnt wood was never to be forgotten. A frightening experience.

Another but different fire was in a totally different environment. I was responsible for a large camp established in the bush in southern Nepal for the investigation of a potentially large engineering project. For logistical reasons it was set up close to a village on the trail from Tibet in the north to the Terai and India to the south. This linear village had houses and shops strung out along the road. There was a constant hive of activity with porters bringing goods from the north and buying, selling, cooking, and sleeping on the street at various times of the day and especially during the heat of the pre-monsoon season. Long chains of sheep and goats meandered along the road, their keepers scouring the woods to cut vegetation to feed the animals. Workers from the village acted as labourers for our camp and drilling operations.

In the middle of one night I was awakened by flames shooting some ten metres up into the air in the centre of the village. Two houses were on fire from a cooking incident gone awry. The villagers were in a panic and nobody seemed to know how to prevent the whole village from burning down. Water was available only in very limited quantities. A group from our camp who hastily rose from their beds to see the dilemma realized that the only solution was to create a fire break by tearing down some houses. This proved to be successful and after several hours the village was saved. Only as morning light broke could we see the devastation and impact on the village. Those villagers whose houses were lost were able to move into our compound and be fed for several days as they were able to rebuild, a remarkably quick process using the local materials to hand. There were very different burning smells here as one might expect, not the smells of the eucalypts in Hobart, or the cedars and firs of BC, but of the amalgam of cooking smells and burnt belongings.

These fire events will always be connected in so many ways in my memory. I thought that they had largely been forgotten but the sounds and smells bring back those memories in a very vivid way. Every event is different as the two most recent events in western Canada at Fort McMurray, and now in the Cariboo, demonstrate. However, one thing that they all have in common is the wonderful way that people come together to fight fires and then help put the communities back together again.




  1. Thank you Graham. Well said and timely as I watch the news of more fires in Northern California. Not quite as devastating as in Tasmania, but its not over yet.

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