Video settings

Please Log in to update your video settings

Video will begin in 5 seconds.

Video settings

Please Log in to update your video settings

That summer when Victoria burned in 1939

Meet Des Morrish, who helped fight the Black Friday fires in 1939.

PT5M18S 620 349

As he nears his 94th birthday, Des Morrish has more summer memories than most and more recollections of the season's cruelties than he needs. The early days of January revive the most searing of them all.

Seventy-five years ago, two weeks shy of his 19th birthday, Mr Morrish witnessed horrors that have never left him and faced grief still raw enough today to bring him to a pause mid-sentence. History recalls January 1939 as the time of Victoria's Black Friday bushfires, and for Mr Morrish, those days of devastation summon stories of heroism and horrors he recalls with the vividness of events just days ago.

''There was nothing known to mankind would stop that fire on that day … the whole of Victoria was on fire,'' he said.

Retrieved 9th February 2009.    Photo Credit: The Department of Primary Industries.

Scorched trees line Black's Spur road between Healesville and Marysville after Black Friday in January 1939

Aftermath: Scorched trees line the road near Healesville after Black Friday in January 1939. Photo: The Department of Primary Indust

The day was Friday, January 13, 1939. The state was in drought, and the heat in that second week of the year was ferocious - 43.8 degrees on January 8 and 44.7 degrees on January 10. On Friday the 13th, it was 45.6 degrees. The royal commission into the disaster later commented: ''It appeared the whole state was alight that day.''

By the time it was over, 71 people were dead. The young Mr Morrish knew close to a quarter of them. He was a Warburton lad, working at a sawmill and volunteering for the fire brigade. It had just one truck but a good one - ''a six-cylinder Dodge with a rear-mounted pump you could pump from a river or a dam or the mains''.

They expected a terrible day, and what they got was hell on earth.

93yo Des Morrish , survivor of the 1939 Black Friday Bushfires
Photo Pat Scala The Age
Friday the 13th of December 2013

Des Morrish survived the fires. Photos: Department of Primary Industries. Photo: Pat Scala

''We could hear this fire coming … like a great tornado,'' Mr Morrish said. ''It would have just melted us. It sizzled down there like lightning; you could see it, and all the southern side of Warburton was on fire. They said, 'The fire engine is wanted at East Badger Creek, it's wanted at east Warburton, it's wanted everywhere'. [Fire chief] Max Sparks said, 'This fire engine is here to protect the township of Warburton' … if we go out there we can't pump water, it'll get burnt, we'll get burnt and we'll lose the township. So we stopped there, putting spot fires out and we saved the township.''

The size of the disaster unfolding further afield was as yet unknown to them. There were no phones, no radios, no one coming in or getting out with news.

On the Sunday, when the rain came, the fire crew managed to get to Matlock, where the force of the fire had sucked trees from the ground and strewn them across the landscape, ''as though a giant had strewn a box of matches. You could walk for miles and miles on these trees without touching the road. It was beyond us to get through.''

When they did get through, they found a lone survivor among their many mates. Mr Morrish lists the fallen: ''Fifteen men and 12 horses. Jimmy Fitzpatrick. His two sons, Ian and Cecil. Old Bill Ellingsworth and Harry Ellingsworth, father and son. Mick and Joe Rogers, two friends of mine, they went. Many others. George Sellers, the only survivor, [said] the screams from the men and the horses nearly drove him insane.

''There was no such word known in those days as counselling - all [the survivors] had to do was get on with their lives.''

Get on with their lives they did. That year brought events that proved even more life-altering for many, with World War II only months away. But it is the Black Friday fires that define the year for Mr Morrish, one of a handful of the survivors still living. In many ways, bushfires have been key markers in his life … the first he remembers are the big fires of 1926, then again in 1932, once more in 1945, and then Ash Wednesday in 1983, when, at the age of 63, he returned to Warburton and offered to help fight the worst fires the state had seen since 1939.