The Courier 150th: We’ve seen fire, we’ve seen rain

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Ballarat has seen plenty of fire and plenty of rain over the past 150 years.

Add in freak hailstorms, tragic rock falls, droughts and even a tornado, and Ballarat can lay claim to its fair share of natural disasters.

However, it’s not often a local fire causes the death of five volunteer firefighters and forces massive changes to volunteer firefighter training.

But on December 2, 1998, a large wildfire burned through 660 hectares of private land and state forest near Linton. At 8.45pm, five Geelong West volunteer firefighters were killed sheltering in their truck when the fire suddenly changed direction.

The Courier reports the coroner’s finding from an April 2011 inquest: “Matthew Armstrong, 17, Jason Thomas, 25, Chris Evans, 27, Stuart Davidson, 28, and Garry Vredevelt, 47, had only a couple of things in common. One was that they were volunteer firefighters with the Geelong West brigade.

Another was that they had little idea of what to do to save their lives as a wind change swept a raging inferno onto them with the “roar of a thousand locomotives”.

The Geelong West crew didn’t need to be asked to go and fight the fire that took their lives – and according to a lot of the evidence presented to the inquest into their deaths, they probably shouldn’t have been.”

Large scale bushfires also devastated the Berringa and Dereel areas in February 1995 and March 2013, Snake Valley in March 2006 and January 2013, and Scotsburn in December 2015.

The Berringa fire of February 25 and 26, 1995, burnt 10,000 hectares and destroyed seven homes after a campfire got out of control on a total fire ban day.

But it was a lack of mobile phone coverage that angered Dereel residents when fire destroyed 12 homes and 1300 hectares on an unseasonably hot March 27, 2013.

The Courier’s headlines summed up the blaze: “Bent and blackened, but Dereel’s spirit lives on after bushfires”, “Mobile blackspots affect fire warnings” and “Hottest autumn day since the 1950s”.

While six houses were destroyed in a blaze at Snake Valley on March 13, 2006, it was the January 8, 2013 fire that destroyed a local historic icon – Carngham Station.

However, it wasn’t the first time the homestead suffered fire damage. In July 1918, The Courier reported a log rolling from the fireplace caused 6000 pounds of damage, with only a few stone walls and chimneys remaining of the original 45-room residence.

On December 19, 2015, fire broke out at Scotsburn on a scorching day, destroying 12 homes and 4000 hectares.

A year later, Roger Skimming told The Courier “I just want to die” after being found guilty of causing the blaze when the power take-off drive on his slasher snapped.

However, the Ballarat region has also not been immune to water ravages.

Ballarat’s CBD was awash with water on New Year’s Eve 1991 when 76 millimetres fell in just a few hours.

Water was waist deep in the Bridge Mall, local watchmaker Ian Clamp luckily survived being sucked into an open drain and cars floated away down Lydiard Street North.

Both the Creswick and Skipton regions have been flood prone with Skipton flooding three times in five months in 2011 and Creswick being hit hard in 2010 and 2011.

On September 4, 2010, more than 80 people were evacuated as severe flooding had Creswick’s main road under water.

The Courier reports: “Fears a man may have been washed away by the floods have been allayed, with police confirming a body seen swept down the town’s main street was that of a dog.”

Only four months later, heavy rain wreaked havoc across Creswick, Clunes, Miners Rest, Carisbrook and Skipton from January 12 to 14.

But Ballarat has also been affected by some more unusual, and sadly tragic, freak events.

On March 28, 1990 two Melton schoolgirls from Mowbray College were killed in a freak rockfall while rock climbing and abseiling at Lal Lal Falls.

The falls have been closed to public access ever since but it wasn’t the first rockfall at the site.

The Courier reports back in January 1895 12-year-old Willie Kenworthy was killed after being struck by a boulder at the falls.

On November 16, 1989, a freak hailstorm hit the Ballarat region, causing millions of dollars of damage, mainly to cars and roofs.

The Courier’s headline read: “Savage storm lashes district” and journalists reported: “Hail as big as hen’s eggs and golf balls rained down on Ballarat last night”.

However, Ballarat has only experienced one tornado – back in August 19, 1909.

Reports read: “In a sensational quarter of an hour, there was loss of human life. Several persons were injured; houses were levelled to the ground, roofs were carried away, chimneys collapsed, out buildings and fences were whirled into the streets, house furnishings were saturated by a torrential downpour of rain, and telephone wires and trees were blown down.”

While Lake Wendouree is considered one of Ballarat’s most beautiful natural assets, it’s hard to believe it caught fire not once but three times in 2009.

During the prolonged drought of the late 2000s, the lake completely dried up – with locals and tourists alike flocking to walk across the dry bed - with fairy grass test burn-offs causing the first fire and flare-ups the other two.