Bushfires have occurred in Australia for millennia. They are a natural phenomenon and are most often caused by lightning strikes. But human occupation brought other causes. Indigenous Australians used fire to shape and transform the environment, promoting the growth of grasslands and consequently food sources such as wallabies and other small marsupials. This is often referred to as firestick farming.
Fire is an important part of some ecosystems and is necessary for the germination of seeds and the regeneration of some trees and plants. Eucalyptus is particularly flammable because of the high oil content in its leaves. When bushfires occur in a period of severe drought, however, their effects can be so deadly as to destroy any possibility of regrowth.
Victoria’s earliest recorded bushfire occurred on Thursday 6 February in 1851, the Black Thursday fires. Fire covered a quarter of the Port Phillip district (now Victoria) or approximately five million hectares. The areas affected included Portland, the Plenty Ranges, Westernport, and the Wimmera and Dandenong districts. The fire was so fierce and extensive that its glow was visible to ships in Bass Strait. A painter, Henry Mundy, wrote the following in his diaries:
It was not long after when I heard the well known crackling and roar of the fiery demon approaching. Mrs Dwyer and the women folk were rushing about in great excitement, fearing as they said of being burnt to death. I said to Mrs Dwyer don’t be afraid ma’am, the fire can’t come here. Why? She inquired. Because there is nothing for it to burn. God help us she said.
- Henry Mundy, 1851
Mundy, H, The land of their adoption: (Henry Mundy's diary), from England to Australia, 1838-1857, transcribed by A.D. Reid, Kialla, Vic.
Black Friday occurred after a long drought on Friday 13 January 1939. It affected a large area of eastern Victoria and destroyed the townships of Narbethong, Noojee, Woods Point, Nayook West and Hill End. On the day of the fire the temperature reached a then record maximum of 45.6 degrees. More than 1000 homes were destroyed and 71 people were killed. Following Black Friday, a royal commission determined the need to establish a Country Fire Authority (CFA).
On 11 February 1983, the Ash Wednesday fires burned from the Dandenongs to the Otway Ranges and on to the Adelaide Hills in South Australia. It came after Victoria’s second lowest annual rainfall on record of 362mm in 1982. On the day of the fire the temperature reached 43 degrees. In the evening a sudden and violent wind change occurred causing the fires to change direction and dramatically increasing the size of the fire front. The death toll was 47 in Victoria and 28 in South Australia.
Like most of the major bushfires that have occurred in Victoria since European settlement, Black Saturday on February 7th 2009 came at the end of a particularly bad drought. After a record three days straight of temperatures above 43 degrees, the Black Saturday fires occurred on Melbourne’s hottest day on record with temperatures reaching 46.4 degrees. A cool change that occurred in the early evening brought with it gale force winds that reached in excess of 120 kilometres per hour. This change in wind direction caused massive fire fronts that burned with incredible speed and ferocity. Over 2000 homes were lost, 173 people died and millions of animals were killed. The towns of Marysville, Kinglake, and Strathewen were devastated.