At the end of January the temperatures had soared into the
high 30’s. More than 30 bushfires had broken out across the state, but the
winds where not strong enough to fan the flames. Days later this situation
changed, the fires which started at Cann River took nine days to control while
Mt. Macedon went up in flames. Twenty four houses and 6,200 ha of land where
destroyed and around Mt. Macedon.
The El Nino effect of 1982-83 produced some of the lowest
rainfall totals for vast areas of Eastern Australia. The rainfall for summer
’82-’83 was 75% lower than that of previous years. By the time the drought
had broke in March 1983 extensive areas of Eastern Australia had lost valuable
top soil to wind erosion of the de-vegetated surface.
On February 8, Melbourne was subject to a fierce dust storm
which is usually only seen by those living on the land. It was one of the most
severe and widespread dust storms ever experienced in Victoria. The massive dust
storm (dust cloud) enveloped the city passing through and reducing visibility
down to a few meters, bringing city traffic to a standstill then moving out to
the south eastern suburbs. The cloud was approximately 500km wide and 100 km
deep and consisting of 200,000 tons of top soil from drought ravished farmlands
on Melbourne’s outskirts. This caused the sun to be blackened out from the
In addition to the dust storm, the combination of the
proceeding drought, strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity resulted in
extremely high fire danger The dust hampered the fire fighters efforts to locate
the fires. Conventional methods proved useless (spotter planes and towers). Fire
fighters could only smell the smoke,
but couldn’t identify the whereabouts. The dust storm provided evidence that
the growing alarm was peaking and that the worst was yet to come.
For several days after this fire fighters battled the Can
River blaze which burned out approximately 120,000ha of forest land both in
Victoria and New South Wales.
WEDNESDAY FEBRUARY 16
The week began with a cool Sunday where the temperature only reached 23deg, warming Monday to 34deg. A total fire ban was declared for the Tuesday .
On Wednesday February 16 over 2,000 homes where destroyed along with 75 lives lost, 28 from South Australia and 47 from Victoria. The largest number of deaths occurred in Upper Beaconsfield. There was 159,000 Ha burnt in Victoria with another 159,000 Ha in Adelaide. Nine of the Victorian fires where greater than 150 Ha. The total amount of private land burnt was approximately 120,000 Ha. Public land involved in the fires included the Dandenong Ranges, the Otway Ranges and the Wombat State Forest, burning approximately 486,030 Ha of land.
toped a mean 43.0deg at 3:55pm with the humidity as low as six percent. At
7:00pm the temperature was still scorching at 41.0deg, humidity at seven
percent, (on most summer days the humidity drops to about 43%).
Photo's 1 & 2: Wrights Forest, Cockatoo, Ash Wednesday
Fire authorities where alluded by forecasts for milder
weather for the following day, but by early ash Wednesday morning the forecast
had been changed and a total fire ban was imposed. It was apparent by mid
morning the conditions would be much worse than expected. With the northerly
winds blowing at an average of about 60kmh and the effected area’s having next
to little or in some cases no rain in the months leading up to the Wednesday
conditions for fires where right on track.
It was at about this time that the
first of the spot fires had broken out. More than 180 small spot fires where
reported, though only about six of these grew into major proportions. The
largest fires where at Cudgee, Braxholme (near Warnambool), Mt Macedon,
Dandenongs (Cockatoo, Upper Beaconsfield, Belgrave Heights), Monivale, Warburton
and the Otways.
Rainfall deficiency pattern through Eastern Australia during the 1992-1993
The fires began at about 3:30pm with the front creating it
own storm of fireballs that exploded ahead of the main front. It was estimated
that the fires energy was approximately 60,000 kilowatts per meter, at least 30
times more intense than a normal bushfire.
The strong winds forced the fire along. Winds where reported
to have gusted up to 100kph. Soon it was rolling, gathering momentum, creating
its own wind. The walls of the flames, a hundred meters high in some cases
reared out of control as gum trees erupted upwards like giant candles. Soon
after giant fire balls where leaping ahead of the main fire, starting yet more
fires. During the early evening a change had swept through with a wind change,
causing the fire to change direction and creating an even larger fire front.
of burning bark, blowing about in the wild winds battered against window pains
of houses, ignighting them spontaneously with the roof tiles blowing upwards and
the walls blasting sideways.
There was no pattern to the destruction. Weather board homes
with tin roofs remained untouched by the fire while solid brick veneer homes
where lost. Sometimes every home in the street would perish, sometimes just a
and Upper Beaconsfield where hit by two separate fires, but by the end of Ash
Wednesday 25 percent of the Shire of Sherbrooke had been wiped out. Belgrave,
Belgrave Heights, Narre Warren East, Menzies Creek, Lysterfield, Emerald and
Avonsleigh all recorded significant losses.
the dark of the night come small reminders of the fires as small burnt gum
leaves showered the suburbs. It wasn’t only homes being destroyed. It was also
the forests burning and the animals dying. Hundreds of Kangaroos, Wallabies,
Koalas and Possums where burnt alive while endangered species such as the
Helmeted Honey Eater perished not to be seen again for years.
In the black charcoal paddocks cattle either perished or roamed dazed at what had just struck them. Farmers where forced to shoot remaining cattle, putting them out of their misery. The fire destroyed in total approximately 76,000ha and millions of bails of hay. For days and weeks after the fires mass graves where dug for the
cattle. There was approximately 17500 sheep, 7130 cattle, 211 horses, not to
mention the numerous numbers of goats, pigs, donkeys and deer.
There was also personal loss which can’t be measured in
money, items such as family photos, kid’s toys and family pets. Some things of
which are just irreplaceable.
3: A farmer
considering the plight of his heard
4: Two CFA
crewmen and a water tanker battling against the odds
the fire fighters
in battle where hundreds more volunteers, organizations such as St. Johns
Ambulance, the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, local churches and the CFA
Assisting fire fighters in the front-line where police, ambulance
officers, members of the State Emergency Services along with S.E.C linesmen
(former State Electricity Commission) and Telecom (now Telstra) technicians.
On the downside there were the human casualties. People who perished
trying to reach their homes or trying to flee their homes by car only to caught
by the fire storm and engulfed. Others died trying to save their homes with
garden hoses, hosing the burning embers and leaves in their guttering. These
people died in the thick blinding smoke that sucked the oxygen, not only from
around them, but from deep within their lungs.
Eighty three people at Mc Mahons Creek survived the fires by huddling
together for 24 hours in a flood water tunnel at the Yarra Dam. The tunnel was
only about 1m wide and less than 2m deep. A couple from Cockatoo, who where to
be married 3 days after the fire holocaust perished in the fires. The fires came
through the Cockatoo township with such veracity that the couple had no option
but to seek refuge in a storm water drain, where they where found huddled in
each others arms.
where also two crews of fire
fighters whom all perished on that
day. They where crews from Panton
Hill and Narre Warren, who where caught along a road on the top of a slope of a
They went to defend a hilltop home on St. Gorges Road in Upper
Beaconsfield. Parking their tankers on the track they took their stand, but the
flames leapt up the slope and enveloped the tankers. Some died huddled against
the bank of the hill, others caught seeking shelter in the cabins of the tankers
Narre Warren Brigade:
Captain John Minett
Officer Peter Singleton
5 and 6:
The memorial plaque erected by the Country Fire Authority and the Forests
Commission of Victoria in memory of the 11 fire-fighters who lost their lives on
St. Gorges Road, February 16, 1983