PRE ‘ASH WEDNESDAY’

    Summer started early in 1982. The first ‘Total Fire Ban’ was declared on November 24, the earliest ever recorded. The first big bushfire of that season was reported on the following day, the 25th of November. As the summer progressed the drought, which had begun as early as April ’92 worsened and the concern mounted. February ’83 was reported to be the driest on record. Due to the climatic situation the trees wilted a lot more than normal contributing to the increased amount on leaf litter on the ground, the sort of material that fuels fires.

  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 landscape.

  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.

  The temperature 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.

Map 1: Rainfall deficiency pattern through Eastern Australia during the 1992-1993 drought

  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.

Map 2: Fire distribution

  Chunks 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 couple.

Cockatoo 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.

  Map 3: Losses in Victoria

   From 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

perished 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.

 

Photo 3: A farmer considering the plight of his heard

 

Photo 4: Two CFA crewmen and a water tanker battling against the odds

THE HEROES OF ASH WEDNESDAY

    During the bushfires there where in excess of 107,000 volunteer fire fighters on call from the CFA (Country Fire Authority) in Victoria. They where people from every walk of life who gave up their spare time to train for such disasters as this day. Along with the CFA crews there were nearly 2,000 forest commission workers.

Supporting 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 women’s auxiliaries.

  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.

There 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 woody gully.

  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 and underneath.

  Below are the names of the fire fighters who perished on St. Gorges Road on February 16, 1983 in the line of duty, saving lives and property.

Narre Warren Brigade:

Captain John Minett

Volunteers:

Dorothy Balcome

Lloyd Donovan

Murray Forsyth

Neil Henry

Darrell Wilkes

Panton Hill Brigade:

Lt. William Marsden

Communications Officer Peter Singleton

Volunteers:

Maurice Atkinson

Stuart Duff

Neville Jeffery

Nar-Nar-Goon Brigade:

Volunteers:

Edward Lowen

Wallacedale Brigade:

Volunteers:

Peter Clover

 

Photo's 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