Burning cane fields at night helped prevent fires getting out of control.
Burning cane fields at night helped prevent fires getting out of control. Contributed

Bushfires a constant worry for the Tweed

FROM early times, fire outbreaks on the Tweed were a constant danger, and farmers who cultivated sugar cane or grew bananas suffered severe economic loss.

Forest and scrubland came close to settlements and with good rainfall and warm weather, the thick vegetation was almost impenetrable. Over the years, bushfires, fuelled by the abundance of dry undergrowth, had devastating effects on the Tweed.

In June, 1970, Tweed Shire's chief fire control officer, Cr Charles Jarvis issued a reminder to Tweed residents to prepare for summer bushfires. He advised farmers, including banana growers, to burn off hazardous growth, which could be safely done by lighting blazes in the late afternoon to make fire breaks.

The year passed uneventfully but, in early October, 1971, a pall of smoke blanketed the Tweed Valley from the numerous fires that broke out because of dry conditions, westerly winds and an ignorance of fire warnings.

The two fires of most concern were in the Sleepy Hollow area near Burringbar and at Cudgen. Minor outbreaks occurred in the Kingscliff area and near Murwillumbah. Fortunately all the fires were brought under control through the hard work of the volunteer bushfire brigades.

Cr Jarvis reminded Tweed residents that the maximum penalty for lighting fires without a permit during the bushfire danger period (Sept 1 to March 31) was $400.

Cane farmers were the only people given special dispensation to burn between 7pm and 7am and landowners who considered it absolutely necessary to burn off had to obtain permits from their local fire captains and also to seek their assistance.

Tweed fire captains played an important role in fighting bushfires. In late October, 1971, Percy Lesleighter, Tom Boyd and Allan Sproule received letters of congratulation from Tweed Shire Council for their efforts in successfully controlling a bushfire on Condong Range, Clothiers Creek.

Fanned by strong gusty SW winds, the blaze raged over the range and burnt through about 200 acres of scrubland and banana plantations. It was mainly through the efforts of the three men, who led the well-organised effort made by about 50 people, that the fire was controlled with no loss of life or damage to houses.

These dry conditions continued in the Tweed area and, in November, except in special circumstances, existing permits to light fires in the Tweed Shire were temporarily revoked. Cane fires could still be lit provided proper caution was taken.

Despite the vigilance of Tweed Shire fire captains, by mid-December a large bushfire started in Dunbible Gulley and spread into the Smith's Creek area. The fire spread over the Mount Nullum-Smith's Creek region and burnt for over five days.

Just as volunteer fire brigades brought this fire under control, the Tweed Heads Volunteer Fire Brigade and assisting firemen were fighting an 800-acre scrub blaze on six fronts between Dry Dock Road and Sexton's Hill.

The fire threatened homes, the BP petrol storage depot on the Pacific Highway at the bottom of Sexton's Hill and swept past the Tweed River High School, reducing surrounding thick grass to ash.

During the outbreak at South Tweed Heads, another tinder box of dried-out scrub, which resulted from a lush growing season followed by a long dry period, was being watched at West Tweed Heads.

However, a few days later it was Murwillumbah Volunteer Fire Brigade members who had to battle for more than four hours in sweltering heat to control a fire that burnt through scrubland at Bray Park.

Planning for bushfire seasons was a co-ordinated effort that involved representatives from the local bush fire brigades, the NSW fire and police departments, State Emergency Service, NSW Forestry Commission, Tweed District Ambulance and the Banana Growers' Federation, who were supervised by the chief fire control officer.

In his role as Tweed Shire Chief Fire Control Officer, Cr Jarvis was once asked by the National Parks Association of NSW to give advice about controlling bushfires.

Cr Jarvis replied: "I believe that controlled hazard reduction slow fires at night time in winter should be encouraged for the preservation of parks, forests, wildlife and other valuable properties.

Any additional restrictions will cause fear of prosecution, hence precautions will not be taken, fire breaks will not be made and the hazard build-up would be disastrous if ignited accidentally."

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