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Victorian Bushfires

Black Friday 1939 Victoria

The Black Friday 1939 Victorian bushfire started in December 1938 as a result of a prolonged drought and unusually severe hot and dry summer. Howver, on 13 January 1939 the "Black Friday" bushfires, fanned by strong hot winds, swept across large areas of Victoria at enormous speeds.

During December 1939 there were several bushfires scattered throughout Victoria which were left unattended. However, on 13 January 1939 strong northerly winds fanned the flames of the scattered bushfires which had previously smouldered. The smouldering bushfires quickly ignited and combined to create a massive fire front which swept from the north east to the coast in the south west.

These bushfires caused immense deestruction in which almost 2 million hectares were burnt, and 71 people losing their lives, entire townships destroyed, saw mills burnt to the ground, over 1000 homes destroyed and thousands of livestock destroyed as a result.

The bushfires were almost statewide and the prolonged bushfires produced enormous amounts of smoke and ash which fell as far east as New Zealand. The bushfires were ended on 15 January 1939 after widespread rainfall fell over Victoria.

After the bushfires a Royal Commission inquiry was initiated by the Victorian governmentand was led by Judge L.E.B Stretton to inquire as to the causes of the bushfires and to initiate methods of preventing a catastrophe such as Black Friday from ever occuring in the future. Judge Stretton determined that the bushfires were caused by man as well as environmental factors. However, Judge Stretton stated that there were several causes to the bushfires as landowners, graziers, miners, forestry workers, campers and tourists carelessly or deliberately lit fires. This included burning off for land clearing and grass growth, lighting campfires, domestic use and inappropriate saw mill operations prior to 13 January 1939 which contributed to the Black Friday bushfires.

Ash Wednesday Victoria

On the 16th February more than fires were started, a day which was known by all Victorians as Ash Wednesday. The fires reported on Ash Wednesday were burning across Victoria and South Australia. Victoria is known as a fire prone zone because of its enormous forests and the fact that Victoria gets extreme temperatures and slight rainfall in the summer. If there is a sudden change in the wind direction, then if a fire comes then this factor can make the fire uncontrollable. Victoria gets huge bushfires every 2 or 3 years but fires which have a strong impact like Ash Wednesday only occurs - 6-10 times every 100 years.

On the 16th February 1983, Victoria has experienced a severe drought which spanned 10 months. Victoria recieved very low levels of rain during Winter and Spring and Summer rainfall was 75% lower than in previous years.

Hot weather during November and December 1982 gave firefighters a glimpse of what was expected. The state of Victoria recieved its earliest TOTAL FIRE BAN on November 24, 1982.

Victorian goverment firefighting agencies realised that they would need extra equipment and aircraft for the next few months.

The first official fire was 1 day after the TOTAL FIRE BAN was in place and was followed by 4 large fires on December 3, December 13, January 8 and February 1, 1983.

On Ash Wednesday, temperatures exceeded 40 degrees and humidity dropped below 15%. The bushfires started early in the afternoon but towards late afternoon the fires were blown inland because of a northerly wind which created long narrow fires.

The fires reached south west Victoria by early evening which was disastrous as a westerly wind changed the fires direction again. The constant wind changes also caused fires to merge to make huge fires.

8 areas in Victoria were hit the worst and they are

Worst Hit Zones

Land Destroyed


Buildings Destroyed





East Trentham/Mt Macedon




Otway Ranges




Belgrave Heights/ Upper Beaconsfield




















486,000 hectares of parks and forests were burnt.

There were numerous causes for the Ash Wednesday fires but it was believed that electricity power lines, and deliberately lit fires were the highest contributors.

During the Ash Wednesday fire more than 16,000 firemen were used as well as 1000 police, 500 defence force personnel. 400 vehicles (fire trucks, water tankers and bulldozers), 11 helicopters and 14 fixed wing aircraft were used.

210,000 hectares were burnt in Victoria and 208,000 hectares were burnt in South Australia.

Alpine Fire - January 1998 - Victoria

The fire of January 1998 burnt 32,000 hectares in which 22,000 hectares of burnt land, were in the Alpine National Park (68.75%). The remaining 10,000 hectares (31.25%) were a part of state forest.

The first official fire was on December 31,1997 where a fire was spotted on the eastern side of the Caledonian River, slightly north of Licola.

It was suspected that a campfire is what caused this fire. There were 3 other possible causes and they were:

Despite an enormous effort by 5 Fixed Wing Fire Bombers, 3 helicopters, 5 bulldozers and 160 firemen the fire burned around 400 hectares in which very dry vegetation and high temperatures and strong winds made this fire impossible to fight.

Firefighting agencies all over Victoria had to deploy firefighters.

By nightfall on January 1, 1998 the fire had destroyed 2000 hectares and was expected to get worse.

By midday January 2, 1998, the fire was still going strong as 200 more firefighters were called.

By about 3:00pm the fire became classified as one of the worst in the 1990's with another 6,000 hectares burnt.

By Friday night, the fire burnt 27,000 hectares which became the worst since 1985. Over 1,000 firefighters had to be called as well as the RAN (Royal Australian Navy) to use 2 helicopters.

Another factor which made this fire difficult to contain was fog which made visibility very poor. The fog cleared completely early in the afternoon.

On the 5th January, 1998, the fire was moving eastward and destroyed over 30,000 hectares.

The Erickson Aircrane was a very useful tool to extinguish this fire as it could drop 9,000 litres of water and refill in a lake in about 40 seconds.

On the 8th January, 1998, the fire was helped slightly by minimal rainfall.

On the 9th January, 1998 firemen focused on the main trouble areas:

On the morning of the 10th January, 1998, only 32% of the fire danger remained as the fire was no longer spreading.

The fire was deemed over on the 11th January, 1998.

The fire officially lasted for 12 days from December 31, 1997 - 11 January, 1998.

Mt Difficult - Grampians National Park 1999 Victoria

The original cause of the Grampian National Park fire was a lightning bolt which was first noticed on 5.1.99 at 8:20PM. 4 lightning fires were detected in the Horsham Fire District on that 1 day. Every year, Victoria gets 1/3 of its bushfires caused by thunderstorms which burns close to 50,000 hectares. Lightning causes the most bushfires across Australia.

The earth is struck by 6000 lightning flashes every minute which is 360,000 every hour and 8,640,000 every day. A lightning bolt can reach a temperature as hot as 30,500 degrees celcius.

On the 5 days between 5.1.99 and 9.1.99 this is a recollection of what happened on each day.

5th January

On the evening a small fire was discovered on the Mt Difficult escarpement. It was originally noticed by an NRE aircraft in the Northern Grampians.

6th January

At day break, aerial firefighting started because the fire was burning on rocky and mountainous terrain.

Late on Wednesday a powerful south easterly wind spread the fire very fast but that changed the area which was burning as it is now burning houses.

7th January

On the 7th smoke from the Grampian bushfire blew as far west as Adelaide, South Australia.

The fire that was burning in the park was blowing in a north westerly direction although the wind was coming from the south east with slight rain which continues the rainfall trend in Victoria. NRE aircrafts were unable to fly because the weather became overcast and the aircraft don't get the clearance to fly until the conditions are good.

NRE and CFA firefighters tried to extinguish whatever they could get.

8th January

Only 3km of the fireline perimeter needed to be built for the 40km perimeter. This stage needed 250 NRE and CFA firefighters, 10 bulldozers and 8 aircraft.

9th January

The fire destroyed 5,500 hectares of the Grampians National Park and 1,500 hectares of housing.

South Australian Bushfires

10-14 January 1939

One fire that had a significant impact on the state South Australia was the fire during mid January 1939. South Australia is another state that gets very limited rainfall during the summer. A good amount of rainfall fell over the Mount Lofty Ranges during Autumn and Winter in 1938. A drought started in September, where a high pressure system continued for 2 weeks over the Tasman Sea. Temperatures were anchored in the extremely hot range and became the highest ever recorded. Adelaide had horrific weather for 10 consecutive days where the maximum temperature was over 36 degrees Celsius. On 12.1.1939, the temperature for Adelaide was 46.1 degrees Celsius. Multiple fires burned between 10-14 January, 1939 which were fuelled by north easterly winds which reached 45 km/h.

There were 4 main aspects for this fire:

  1. Fires which were declared under control, started again days later
  2. The fires burnt most of the forest in the Mount Lofty Ranges
  3. The complete destruction which the fire caused included the demolition of 90 houses come to a total cost of £650,000.
  4. They had to use 6,000 city volunteers to fight the fires with branches and wet bags.

Most of the damage caused was for housing, personal property, fencing, haystacks, orchards, pigs and poultry. There was one fatality; a child was killed near Penola.

Three areas which were seriously affected by this fire were:

The fire was put out completely by a thunderstorm brought by a cool breeze which hit Adelaide on the night of the 14 th of January 1939.

As a result of the fire the South Australian government established the Emergency Fire Services organisation as a branch of the police department which provided training and equipment for volunteer fire organisations.

Ironically the Mount Lofty Ranges fire were put out by a thunderstorm whereas other fires over the last 150 years were started or continued by a thunderstorm.

16 February 1983

South Australia received serious bushfires twice in the 1950’s – 1955 and 1957, and Ash Wednesday, 1980, but the most serious fire came on 16 February, 1983. On 16.2.1983, a group of fires erupted in South Australia and Victoria. They destroyed more than 500,000 hectares of forests, farmland and townships and had 71 fatalities as well. 28 people died in South Australia and 43 people died in Victoria.

The livestock which got incinerated were between 257,000 – 3,300,000 heads.

In 1982, South Australia received 61% of its usual rainfall. The temperature on 15.2.1983 was 40.8 degrees Celsius in Adelaide. The combination of temperature, humidity and wind ensured that any fire would become out of control in large areas.

It took only 12 hours to cause $400 million worth of damage. 10,000 km of farm fencing were destroyed, 500 vehicles were burnt, 2 timber mills were lost. About 75% of the damage was in the south east.


NSW Fires

In the 45 year period between 1957 – 2002 there were 16 years with major fires.

The first fire was in 1957

This fire burned in the Blue Mountains and it was fuelled by gale force winds which destroyed a series of structures:

The next fire was in 1964/65

This fire burned in 3 regions:

The 2 major fires for this season were Chatsbury/Bungonia and Temut Valley. The Chatsbury fire destroyed 250,000 hectares and the Temut Valley destroyed 80,000 hectares.

The next fire was 1968/69

Fires for this season occurred mostly in the eastern part of the state. Wollongong had bushfires which torched rainforests, 33 homes were destroyed a 5 more buildings were destroyed. The Blue Mountains series of fires were fuelled by 100 km/h westerly winds and had 3 fatalities and 123 buildings were destroyed.

The next fire was 1969/70

The fire burnt more than a quarter of a million hectares in 21 days.

The next fire was 1972/73

This fire affected the south eastern corner of the state which was the worst fire in NSW since 1968. This fire destroyed over 200,000 hectares. The Burrinjuck fire destroyed 16,000 hectares uprooting all trees on a hillside.

The next fire was 1974/75

This was the worst fire since 1945. Almost 4 million hectares were destroyed. 50,000 livestock were destroyed and over 10,000 km of fencing destroyed.

The next fire was 1976/77

In early December, fires raged in the Hornsby Shire and Blue Mountains. 74,000 hectares were destroyed in both areas.

The next fire was 1977/78

The Blue Mountains had 54,000 hectares burnt and had 43 buildings destroyed.

The next fire was 1978/79

Huge fires occurred in the Southern Highlands and South West Slopes. More than 50,000 hectares were burnt and there were huge livestock losses.

The next fire was 1979/80

A widespread drought occurred throughout NSW. Over 1 million hectares were burnt.

The next fire was 1982/83

It just took 2 hours to cause $12 million worth of damage in southern NSW.

The next fire was 1984/85

Lightning was the cause for 100 fires on Christmas Day, 1984. 500,000 hectares were burnt. During the whole 1984/85 season, 6,000 fires were lit and 3.5 million hectares were burnt.

The next fire was 1987/88

There were 3 major fires I 1987/88. The 3 fires were:

More than 115,000 hectares were destroyed in the Bethungra and Warurillah fire. 3 fatalities occurred in this fire. The other major fire was in the Koskiosko National Park where 65,000 hectares were destroyed.

The next fire was 1990/91

In November 1990, fires came through the council areas of Hay and Murumbidgee which destroyed almost 200,000 hectares of grazing land, destroyed 100,000 livestock and fencing was also burnt. 7 days later, 80,000 hectares were destroyed. This other fire destroyed 76,000 more livestock.

On December 23, fires were reported in:

8 homes were destroyed.

The next fire was 1991/92

Nearly 3,000 fires raged in 1991. 14 homes were destroyed.

The final fire was 1993/94

In late December, 1993, the Hunter Valley and the North Coast received fires which were brought on by very hot temperatures which destroyed 800,000 hectares.