The year of 1939 began in a summer that was abnormally hot.
The hottest in living memory.
It had followed an exceptionally dry spring and forest floor throughout the state were thick with undergrowth and accumulated debris. It was the middle of an extreme heatwave and the entire country was tinder dry.
Literally hundreds of fires had been tormenting brigades everywhere across Victoria.
In the immediate Omeo region small fires had been controlled by a bush fire brigade that consisted largely of nap-sack sprays, beaters, and rakes, shovels and axes.
But it was a more sinister blaze burning uncontrolled in the mountains to the west, expanding across a forty kilometre front that worried the town’s councillors.
Lightening strikes caused by summer storms had ignited the tinder-dry bush weeks before and the fire was running its own course at its own pace.
Smoke had been in the air for days and at night an ominous red glow lit up the distant skyline.
By mid morning on Friday the thirteenth, strong westerly winds had turned to a gale.
The temperature was well on its way to 45.6 degrees.
Fires burning to the west of Omeo had joined into one huge inferno that was showering the township with burning embers. It had ripped through the chalet at Mt Hotham and was crossing the alps at a frightening speed.
Within thirty-five minutes, it would be at Omeo.
By midday, the fire brigade, with all able-bodied men had retreated from the front to the town’s perimeter.
The sun was long obliterated and the air was black and heavy with smoke.
At about eight-thirty in the evening, the fire roared up the slopes of the mountains, up Mt Mesley, and over the top and down onto the town.
Sheets of flame leapt from the mountain across the creek and swimming pool and hit buildings, shops, houses, businesses, in a firestorm that exploded through them in minutes.
The Livingston Creek glowed red as eucalyptus gasses exploded overhead.
Boiling winds filled with soot and debris hit into the faces of terrified residents who could do nothing more than watch as the destruction whirled around them.
Charles Duve, Arthur Greenwood and Darcy Fitzgerald, and many others could only watch as their homes were swept up in the flames.
Slaters Cafe was saved, but Haylock’s boot-shop was destroyed, as was Shultz’ Arcade.
Drums containing 5000 gallons of petrol exploded adding to the roar of the flames, obliterating Sandy’s Store.
Firefighters working thirty metres away battled on, undeterred, desperately trying to save what they could.
Flames raced over open ground to the hospital.
Matron Lee and her nursing staff and volunteers frantically began to evacuate the hospital’s inpatients. Many were given morphine to ease their pain and fears.
Dr Gordon Little, who had recently arrived as the Shire’s medical officer was facing the toughest challenge of his career, supervising the arrival of the patients at a make-shift facility at the Hilltop Hotel on the town’s eastern end.
Twenty people, including a growing number of burns victims were made as comfortable as possible.
Within an hour of being transferred from the burning hospital, Charlie MacNamara’s wife, of Cobungarra, gave birth to a baby in the temporary shelter.
Flames licked at the walls of the hospital, and within minutes, it was engulfed and entirely destroyed.
Constable John Hazel, a long-time resident of the town, and its only policeman, did his best to calm men, women, and children, as they sheltered on the town’s public reserve.
Firefighters, already exhausted, could only watch as the hurricane of fire began a final attack on Omeo, their home.
And then, suddenly, a miracle happened.
The winds turned and began blowing from the north, pushing the fire away from what was left of the town.
Next morning revealed the extent of the devastation.
The landmark Golden Age Hotel, the hospital, eleven shops, and twenty-two houses had been destroyed.
Throughout the shire, two hundred houses and huts were lost.
Fifteen thousand sheep, eight thousand head of cattle, and two hundred horses were burnt to death.
As the fire had raced towards Omeo, a stockman from Cobungarra, Ernest Richards, had set out to try and save his wife and child. The young thirty-year-old’s charred body was found days later lying beside the burnt remains of his horse and dog.
Eight months after the fires, World War 2 started, and once again, young men answered the call, and left the town.
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