This year marks the 80th anniversary of the Tarrawingee fire tragedy, with a special memorial service to be held tomorrow at the Tarrawingee Memorial Stone.
Local brigades and community members will gather, as they do each year, to honour and pay tribute to the 10 men and teenage boys who lost their lives in the blaze.
CFA Chief Officer Jason Heffernan will join community members and agency leaders from CFA, Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria, Red Cross and the local council to mark this significant anniversary, which will see wreath processions, readings, tributes, and the reading of the roll of honour.
“The memorial service will be an opportunity for people to learn more about what happened on that hot, tragic, windy day on 22 December 1943 and honour those who gave their lives to protect their community,” CO Heffernan said.
“The Tarrawingee fire, and a succession of other significant blazes including Black Friday, not only led to the formation of CFA in 1945, but also helped shape our fire services training, equipment, and resources for the better.
“Those 10 brave men paid the ultimate price protecting their community while many of the district’s men were away fighting in various theatres of war. Their sacrifice continues to be remembered within CFA as the greatest loss of emergency services personnel to that time.”
Eighty years ago, a small fire broke out near the Hume Highway north of Wangaratta, not far from the rural community of Tarrawingee. As the alarm rang out, volunteers, farm trucks and brigade units raced to the scene.
Tarrawingee Fire Brigade member, Graeme Norman has spent years researching the fire.
“It’s a tragedy that Wangaratta and district had never seen before and hopefully will never see again,” he says.
“All those men and the boys came out to help the landowners, they volunteered to come out and help, gave their lives. None of them owned any land in Tarra, they didn’t own anything.
“They were just prepared to come out and help when a lot of people were away at war. All they had were soaked old hessian bags.”
Among those who jumped onto trucks were two 14-year-old schoolboys, work mates knocking off for the day from their jobs as linesmen for the then Post Master General (PMG) department, shop owners, a teacher at the local school, a factory worker, and several farmers.
The fire quickly spread east, jumping roads and a local creek. Those on the frontline had little more than branches, beaters and wet sacks, with only one fire truck carrying water tanks.
When the wind changed, many were trapped, and the situation quickly turned deadly. While some became stuck in the truck that was trapped on a roadside drain, others sheltered behind trees and ran to Ovens River. Unfortunately, some were caught in fences and, sadly, some were badly burnt and died.
In memory of the fallen firefighters at Tarrawingee, a monument was unveiled in 1944 on the Great Alpine Road near where the fire occurred. Community members are invited to attend the memorial service from 11am this Friday, 22 December, meeting nearby at Tarrawingee Hall.
More information about the tragedy, including a video of reflections from the children of those killed, the memorial service program and a link to the livestream of the memorial service can be found on the CFA website.