A Short History of the Panton Hill Brigade

Early Years

The first attempt to form a rural bush fire brigade in Panton Hill was in 1914. The war intervened and called away the young men who would have been the fire-fighters. Many did not return.

During the nineteen-twenties Ford and Chevrolet motor trucks arrived in the area, used by local farmers and orchardists to take their produce to the Melbourne market. These became instrumental in fighting fires. If the school bell rang at any unusual time the growers and farmers would leave their work, whether their trucks were full, half loaded or empty,  and would head straight for the fire, picking up all available men on the way. As water was not available most of the time, the fires were fought with ancient weapons: wet sacks, axes, rakes and green boughs.

This spontaneous but effective response continued until January 1939 when the community decided a more organised approach was needed and the Panton Hill Volunteer Fire Brigade was founded. For seventy years since the Brigade has protected the Panton Hill area and fought fires with other brigades across the state.

Much of the history of the brigade, including personal recollections and many photographs, is captured in “Hear The Siren”, published in 1990. Some copies of this fascinating book are still available for those who are interested in a fuller account than can be rendered here. Two events of major significance, however, we can describe: the fires of 1962 and 1983.

1962 Fires

Between January 14th and 16th 1962 the most devastating fire in memory ravaged Panton Hill and surrounding areas.  Beginning in Christmas Hills on the Sunday it first travelled north until the Tuesday when a northerly wind blew it south through St Andrews, Smiths Gully, Panton Hill, Kangaroo Ground and Warrandyte, then on to Wonga Park and Mitcham, stopping only when the weather cooled and rain fell.

Fourteen homes were lost in Panton Hill. There would have been more but for the tireless efforts of the brigade right through the days of the fire, defending houses with equipment that seems far from adequate by modern standards. A dramatic photo of the burning Matthews property on the Kangaroo Ground road appeared in newspapers around the world.

Illustrated London News February 3rd 1962

Ash Wednesday 1983

Ash Wednesday, February 16th 1983, saw fires of terrible speed and ferocity in several parts of Victoria that claimed some sixty-nine lives. The Cockatoo fire is the one most well remembered in Panton Hill. Tragically, five of the Brigade were trapped in a narrow forest track in Upper Beaconsfield when the wind turned, and died when their tanker was overrun by flames. With them the six member crew from Narre Warren suffered the same fate.

A memorial park in the centre of Panton Hill township gives tribute to their service and provides a venue for concerts and other social activities, reminding us not only of the sacrifice of those men, but also of the central role the Brigade has played over the years in bringing the community together.

And on the end wall of the station, at right angles to the long row of pegs on which we hang our yellow helmets and wildfire clothes, our blue structure jackets, there is a polished plank of rich-grained wood that bears five empty pegs. They are wrought from aged iron spikes and each has a simple plaque with a name:

Maurice Atkinson      Stuart Duff      Neville Jeffrey      Bill Marsden      Peter Singleton

There are brigade members still who knew those men as friends and others, perhaps the majority now, who did not: we all remember them.