BERNARD O'REILLY: Pioneer, hero and author.
BERNARD O'REILLY: Pioneer, hero and author.

How bushfires were fought before fire brigade

RECENT news reports tell us that we are now in the bushfire season. Without our brave firefighters, modern communications, and aerial water tankers many lives and more homes and properties would be lost. But what happened in the days before organized fire brigades, radios and telecommunications, and before aeroplanes? One great story can be found in Bernard O'Reilly's collection of tales known as Green mountains, and Cullenbenbong. This tells the O'Reilly family story and includes the 1904-5 bushfire in the Kanimbla Valley/Blue Mountains area.

The O'Reilly family were long-time pioneers there before coming north to the Lamington Plateau. In 1902 the Blue Mountains area had experienced one of the worst droughts in its history. It had been followed by extremely icy conditions in winter with heavy and persistent rain in the following spring and early summer. This had resulted in a massive growth of grass and small bushes which, when dried out, provided an abundant supply of fuel for a bushfire. The following New Year's Day was to be known as Black New Year and the O'Reilly family were among those who had to fight for their lives as well as for their property.

Peter O'Reilly, the father, was not at home as there had been another family problem on Boxing Day. One of the children, six-year-old Ann, had broken her arm, a compound fracture with a jagged bone protruding through the flesh. Peter held her in his arms over the five hour journey to Lithgow in a neighbour's sulky and on arrival the doctor had wanted to amputate the arm. Peter would not agree and sought other advice. The arm was successfully packed in ice and the child left in hospital while the father rushed back home.

About 50 men of the district had been working day and night to keep the fire at bay. Fire trails four feet wide and many miles long were scraped clean of leaves and twigs, the trails patrolled and burning trees which fell across the trails were beaten out. Older children were helping the men and women were using wet bags to beat out grass fires or aiding men exhausted in the heat and smoke. Those with houses still standing out of the danger zone were filled with children looked after by the older children while mothers provided food for the men at work.

Animals (mainly sheep) were rushed to a green paddock if there was one. Those who could not do this had to see their animals die. The O'Reilly's found a small green grass paddock for their sheep and these were joined by a large number of wallabies, for a time losing their fear of man in their fear of the fire. Water from creeks was poured over houses in an effort to protect them as the fire bore down. Small children in danger were taken to the creeks. They stood or floated up to their necks in water with wet muslin over their heads. Even babies were there. Mother, Jane O'Reilly, had other duties with the fire but ran back to the creek from time to time to see that her children were all right.

The O'Reilly's were lucky and their home and buildings were saved as the fire raged on towards Katoomba. Bernard O'Reilly's account of the fire, and many other family stories, including the finding of the Stinson aeroplane in 1937, are contained in this amazing book. He tells of the birds and the trees, how the forests were cleared including how timber drives were executed.



Prepared by Geoff and Margaret Henderson for Richmond River Historical Society, 6621 9993.

Museum at 165 Molesworth St, Lismore is open 10am-4pm Monday-Friday

Research room open 10am-4pm Monday and Wednesday.

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