Wildfire by Mavis Thorpe Clark

Hornsby, NSW: Hodder and Stoughton, 1973.
176 pages; hard-cover; 22cm; not illus.

More publishing information


"Each year in Victoria people perish in bushfires. Large numbers of stock are burned to death, and valuable forests are destroyed. Bushfires occur elsewhere in Australia, of course, but this south-eastern corner of the continent is especially susceptible to fire.

Climatic conditions are responsible for this terrible hazard. A good winter rainfall produces lush growth which the high temperatures and dry north winds of summer turn into tinder. Heat generates highly combustible vapours from the oil-bearing trees and scrub such as the eucalypts and the ti-tree. In few other places in the world do the conditions of climate and fuel combine to produce such ferocious fires as in Victoria.

Natural causes, such as lightning, are responsible for only one bush-fire in every hundred. It as been said that there are three reasons for bushfires: man, woman, and child. In former times the Aborigines lit fires to flush out animals for food, and there is evidence that the country was regularly swept by fire before the coming of European settlers.

Between five thousand and seven thousand fires occur in Victoria every year. Some are very small; most are quickly controlled, but there are those that become "wildfire".

Some tragic bushfire years stand out in history. In 1851, Victoria burned from end to end. On that February day, the sky was dark at midday. Off the coast, cinders fell on the decks of sailing-ships and passengers could smell the burning. Because communications were poor in those days, a full estimate of the loss of human life, stock and property was not possible. In February, 1939, seventy-one people died. In 1969, twenty-one people perished.

Conditions build up which create dangerous bushfire seasons. Over a period of time . . . five years, ten years . . . the litter of leaf and dead wood accumulates on the forest floor. Then comes that extra dry spell, and that day of extreme temperature, low humidity and crazy wind. A total fire ban is always declared on such a day, but a wildfire doesn't respect such a ban."

- Foreword to Wildfire (1973) pages 5-6.

About the story

"It is a total fire ban day. The drought is extreme, creeks are dry, dams are empty, water is restricted for millions of inhabitants. Then, in the searing heat, the forests of brittle tinder and oil-emitting trees are suddenly ablaze. Fire gone wild sweeps through the parched lands … consuming forests and farms, wildlife and livestock.

Steve is sure he didn't "drop a spark" riding the minibike. But as smoke engulfs the town he flees, conscience-stricken, into the forest. Jan sees the blaze approaching from across the woods and learns that her young brother, Fizzer, is missing. Terrified, she rushes into the forest to find him, followed by her friends Bill and Pete … (and they) suddenly find themselves trapped in a raging wildfire."

- Wildfire (1974) blurb.



It came as a distant roar at first, like the thudding of an approaching express. It was heard before the trees bent and cracked on the hillside above the shops and houses. Then it struck a swinging hammer-blow at the town. It split the clam apart; its scream shattered the sunbakers on the sand.

But the bathers fared worse. It turned the breakers into crushing tons of thundering grey water and instantly whipped the tide, already on the turn, into a rip-tide. The fierce undertow swept out to sea, bearing the board-riders with it.

In a few seconds swimmers were struggling helplessly fifty yards out. Eight-foot breakers stood up, curled, and descended on them. Rasping sand blinded them, salt water flooded their lungs."

- Wildfire (1973) page 55.

"Even if they were running as fast as or faster than the fire, the smoke was gaining on them. Smothering smoke that carried in its folds tiny bits of burning debris. Shane cried out when a fallout from the smoke landed on his bare brown skin."

- Wildfire (1973) page 81.

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Cover: Detail from a painting of a bushfire.

Cover of the 1973 edition of Wildfire.

Cover illustration: two children and a dog run through the burning bush.

Cover of 1976 paperback edition of Wildfire.

Cover illustration: Silhouette of five children running in front of flames.

Cover of the 1974 US edition of Wildfire.

Wildfire - scan of same page of original manuscript and published book.

Page 50 from the 1973 edition of Wildfire (right) with the same page of the original manuscript, annotated by the author (please click image to enlarge).