Aboriginal land management relied on controlled burning. Among the colonists, however, fire was poorly controlled and much less predictable. Accidents were frequent and arson often proved a handy weapon for criminal damage.
These risks were intensified in timber cottages, crowded together and relying on informal kitchens.
Several of the industries that flourished here were virtually fire-traps: timber, wool, sugar – and even flour – all ran serious risks. Some of the resulting fires burned for days, and were so spectacular that they attracted great crowds.
The authorities were slow and reluctant to tackle these problems: a fire-station was built only in 1906. After that the fire-fighters became highly proficient, partly because they amassed so much practical experience. Industries faced such huge financial losses that they also adopted sensible precautions. Gradually, the risks of fire receded. In better news, from 1937 the Burley Griffin Incinerator was a brilliant example of using fire creatively.
Despite these advances, fires burst out in new forms. In 1956 fire in a Cold Store cost the owners over £1,000,000 – and revealed that the fire service was ill-equipped for chemical fires. (Tribune 4 April 1956,
Canberra Times 19 March 1956). And in 1971 a spectacular blaze destroyed a three-acre warehouse and 34,000 reels of newsprint, setting Fairfax back perhaps $4,000,000 (Australian Women’s Weekly 24 February 1971).