Ash Wednesday bushfires

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Ash Wednesday bushfires
Location South Eastern Australia:
Victoria & South Australia
Date(s) 16 February 1983
Burned area 2,080 km2 (513,979 acres) in South Australia and 2,100 km2 (518,921 acres) in Victoria on one day. 5,200 km2 (1,284,948 acres) burnt throughout the 1982/83 season.[1][2]
Cause Faulty powerlines, arson, and negligence after years of extreme drought
Land use Urban/rural fringe areas, farmland, and forest reserves
Injuries 2,676[1]
Fatalities 75
(47 – Victoria)
(28 – South Australia)

The Ash Wednesday bushfires, known in South Australia as Ash Wednesday II,[3] were a series of bushfires that occurred in south-eastern Australia on 16 February 1983, which was Ash Wednesday in the Christian calendar. Within twelve hours, more than 180 fires fanned by winds of up to 110 km/h (68 mph) caused widespread destruction across the states of Victoria and South Australia.[4] Years of severe drought and extreme weather combined to create one of Australia's worst fire days in a century.[5] The fires became the deadliest bushfire in Australian history, until the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009.

In Victoria, 47 people died, while in South Australia there were 28 deaths. This included 14 CFA and 3 CFS volunteer fire-fighters who died across both states that day.[6][7] Many fatalities were as a result of firestorm conditions caused by a sudden and violent wind change in the evening which rapidly changed the direction and size of the fire front.[8][9] The speed and ferocity of the flames, aided by abundant fuels and a landscape immersed in smoke, made fire suppression and containment impossible.[10] In many cases, residents fended for themselves as fires broke communications, cut off escape routes and severed electricity and water supplies.[11] Up to 8,000 people were evacuated in Victoria at the height of the crisis and a state of disaster was declared for the first time in South Australia's history.[6][8]

Ash Wednesday was one of Australia's costliest natural disasters.[12] Over 3,700 buildings were destroyed or damaged and 2,545 individuals and families lost their homes. Livestock losses were very high, with over 340,000 sheep, 18,000 cattle and numerous native animals either dead or later destroyed.[13] A total of 4,540 insurance claims were paid totalling A$176 million with a total estimated cost of well over $400 million (1983 values) for both states or $1.3 billion in adjusted terms (2007).[1][14]

The emergency saw the largest number of volunteers called to duty from across Australia at the same time—an estimated 130,000 firefighters, defence force personnel, relief workers and support crews.[15]


1980 South Australian bushfires

On Ash Wednesday in 1980 during a virtually rainless summer after a very wet spring in 1979, bushfires swept through the Adelaide Hills in South Australia, destroying 51 houses.[16] These fires were referred to as "Ash Wednesday" until the 1983 fires, which became notorious nationwide.

El Niño

As 1982 came to a close, large areas of eastern Australia lay devastated by a prolonged drought thought to be caused by the El Niño climatic cycle. In many places, rainfall over winter and spring had been as little as half the previous record low[17] in a record dating back to the 1870s[18] and severe water restrictions were imposed in Melbourne in November. On 24 November, the earliest Total Fire Ban in forty years was proclaimed in Victoria. By February 1983, summer rainfall for Victoria was up to 75% less than in previous years. The first week of February was punctuated by intense heat, with record high temperatures experienced on 1 and 8 February. This combination further destabilised an already volatile fire situation in the forested upland areas surrounding the Victorian and South Australian capitals of Melbourne and Adelaide.

Early fire season

Victorian Government firefighting agencies employed extra staff and organised for additional equipment and aircraft to be ready for firefighting over the summer. The first big bushfire occurred on 25 November 1982 and was followed by large fires on 3 and 13 December 1982. Even before 16 February, fires were already causing destruction in Victoria. An ongoing fire near Cann River in the state's east had been burning uncontrolled for almost a month. Prior to that, a major bushfire on 8 January had taken hold north of Bacchus Marsh in the Wombat State Forest where two Forest Commission workers lost their lives defending Greendale. On 1 February, a fire burnt the north face of Mount Macedon and areas of state forest.[19] Fifty houses were destroyed. These fires were already creating a strain on firefighting resources. In the 1982/83 season, 3500 fires were reported to the CFA in Victoria alone.[9]

Dust storm

An ominous sign of things to come occurred on the afternoon of 8 February, when Melbourne was enveloped by a giant dust storm. The dust cloud was over 300 metres high and 500 kilometres long and was composed of an estimated 50,000 tonnes of topsoil from the drought-ravaged Wimmera and Mallee areas of north-west Victoria. Leading a dry cool change and preceded by record temperatures, the dust storm cut visibility in Melbourne to 100 metres, creating near darkness for almost an hour.[20]

There was also a dust storm in Adelaide on the day of the bushfires.[21]

Events of 16 February

Wednesday 16 February— Ash Wednesday on the Christian calendar—dawned as another unrelentingly hot, dry day. The weather early on Ash Wednesday was complex and did not signify how the day would develop. A front separated hot, dry air coming in from the interior to the north, from cooler air moving eastwards from the Southern Ocean. Ahead of the front were hot, turbulent, gale force northerly winds. Temperatures around Melbourne and Adelaide quickly rose above 43 °C, with winds gusting up to 100 km/h and relative humidity plunging to as low as 6 per cent. From mid-morning, McArthur's fire danger index was in excess of 100 in several places in Victoria and South Australia.[22] It would be one of the worst fire weather days in south-east Australia since the disastrous Black Friday bushfires in 1939.[23]

The first fire was reported at 11:30 am at McLaren Flat, south of Adelaide. Within hours, multiple reports of breaking fires quickly began to deluge Victoria's and South Australia's emergency services. In Victoria alone, 180 fires were reported, eight of which became major fires. At one stage, the entire Melbourne metropolitan area was encircled by an arc of fire. Property loss began early in the afternoon, particularly in the Adelaide Hills, east of Adelaide and the Dandenong Ranges, east of Melbourne.[24]

Murray Nicoll, a journalist from radio station 5DN and resident of the Adelaide Hills, reported live from his local area where five people died:

Mount Lofty Summit Road is lined by a number of historic mansions, like Eurilla, Carminow and Mount Lofty House. The flames roared up the tower of Carminow like a chimney, destroying everything, including the wonderful gardens. Next door at Eurilla, Kym and Julie Bonython lost all of their worldly possessions, including antiques, paintings, and most regrettably, Kym Bonython's extensive Jazz Record collection. He saved only his favourite motorbike. At this time, this part of the Adelaide Hills was still not connected to the mains water supply, so all of the houses had only petrol powered pumps and rainwater tanks. "The petrol in the emergency pump just vaporised with the heat" said Kym Bonython. "We could do nothing except watch the place burn". Across the road at Pine Lodge (formerly the Mt Lofty Tea Rooms), the resident rolled out the property's fire hose, connected it to the working diesel pump, only to find that embers were already burning numerous holes in the hose, rendering it useless. Down the road at Mount Lofty House, Mr and Mrs James Morgan lost $150,000 worth of furniture and artwork, which they had moved into the huge house only a fortnight before the fires, when they purchased the property. At 3:15 pm on Wednesday, Mr and Mrs Morgan went to pick up their children for the local school and kindergarten. "Three quarters of an hour later the roof was burning", said Mr Morgan. Flames across the road and road blocks prevented the family from returning to the house, until it was burnt to the ground. "it's worth nothing now", said Mr Morgan. All of these houses have since been restored and are privately owned. Mount Lofty House has since been turned into a boutique hotel. St Michael's House, a mansion converted to an Anglican monastery in the 1940s, was also burnt in the fires, but not restored and the whole site has since been cleared, leaving only the ruins of the gate house.

More than 60% of the houses lost in South Australia were in the Mount Lofty Ranges. Of the 26 people who died in South Australia, 12 were in metropolitan areas, including four in the Adelaide suburb of Greenhill.[26]

Wind change

The most disastrous factor in the Ash Wednesday fires occurred just before nightfall when a fierce and dry wind change swept across South Australia and Victoria. This abruptly changed the direction and dramatically increased the intensity of the fires. The long corridors of flame that had been driven all day by the strong northerly were suddenly hit by gale force south-westerly winds and became enormous fire fronts, many kilometres wide, reportedly moving faster than 110 km/h.[27]

The near-cyclonic strength of the wind change created an unstoppable firestorm[dubious ][citation needed] that produced tornado-like fire whirls and fireballs of eucalyptus gas measuring over three metres across. Survivors reported that the roar of the fire front was similar to that of a jet engine, though multiplied fifty, a hundred times. The change in temperature and air pressure was so savage that houses were seen exploding before fire could touch them.[28] A resident of Aireys Inlet, on Victoria's western coast, was quoted:

The freakish conditions spawned unique effects: a car was forced 90m along a road with its handbrake on, burning mattresses were seen hurtling through the air,[5] steaks were cooked well-done in deep freezers[dubious ], road surfaces bubbled and caught fire and sand liquefied to glass.[28] CSIRO experts later reported that, from evidence of melted metal, the heat of the fires after the change rose to 2000 °C, exceeding that recorded during the Allied bombing of Dresden in World War II. In fact, the Ash Wednesday fires were measured at around 60,000 kilowatts of heat energy per metre, leading to similarities with the atomic bomb[dubious ] dropped on Hiroshima.[28][better source needed]

Whole townships were obliterated in minutes. In the Dandenong Ranges, the villages of Cockatoo and Upper Beaconsfield were devastated, with twelve volunteer firefighters losing their lives after being trapped by a wall of flame when the wind change struck, while parts of Belgrave Heights (where this fire started) and Belgrave South suffered large areas of property loss.

Most of Macedon and much of historic Mount Macedon to the north west of Melbourne was razed, including many heritage listed 19th century mansions and famed gardens. The morning after Ash Wednesday, popular coastal towns along the Great Ocean Road such as Aireys Inlet, Anglesea and Lorne resembled barren moonscapes. The fire on the coast had been so intense that firefighters were forced to abandon all control efforts and let it burn until it reached the ocean, destroying everything in its path.[29]

The total land area burnt was approximately 2,100 km² (518,921 acres, or 210,000 hectares) in Victoria and 2,080 km² (513,979 acres, or 208,000 hectares) in South Australia. The summer bushfires of 1982/1983 razed approximately 5,200 km² (1,284,000 acres, or 520,000 hectares).[13]


Many of the Victorian fires were thought to have been caused by sparks between short-circuiting power lines, and tree branches connecting with power lines. A systematic review of fire safety was undertaken; areas under high tension pylons were cleared and local domestic lines considered to be at risk were replaced with insulated three-phase supply lines.

In South Australia, an inquest into the fires found that the communication systems used by the Country Fire Service were inadequate and, as a result, the Government radio network was installed, although this did not happen until almost 20 years later.[30] Improvements in weather forecasting, with particular reference to wind changes and fronts, was undertaken by the Bureau of Meteorology. An emergency disaster plan was also legislated known as Displan. Many of the lessons learned in building better homes for fire survival, bush management and emergency response efficiency in analysis of the fires conducted by the CSIRO were to prove vital in later crises, including the 1994 Eastern seaboard and 2003 Canberra fire outbreaks.[31]

A study was conducted into the 32 fatalities (excluding firefighters) that occurred in Victoria. It revealed that 25 were outside their homes, several of whom died in vehicles while attempting to escape the conflagration. It was found that delaying evacuation until the last minute was a common failing.[32]


Along with Cyclone Tracy, Ash Wednesday is arguably the natural disaster to have had the greatest impact on the Australian national psyche. For the next quarter century, it was used as the measure for all bushfire emergencies in Australia, most notably the 2003 Canberra bushfires, which experienced very similar severe fire weather. The disaster caused 75 deaths,[2] which is the second highest death toll for a bushfire in Australia. The 2009 Black Saturday bushfire disaster has since surpassed Ash Wednesday on the list of disasters in Australia by death toll, with 173 confirmed fatalities as of 30 March 2009—although the 1983 fires still remain the worst in Australian history in terms of property loss.

Three decades have passed since the disaster, yet victims and their families still suffer the effects of that day. Many psychological studies were undertaken in the months and years after the fire and found that the events left many in the affected communities with the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).[33]

The lasting impact of Ash Wednesday was highlighted in 2008, when its 25th anniversary received much public and media attention.[34] Commemoration sites have been set up in areas that were hit worst by the fires, with museums hosting exhibits inviting survivors to tell their stories.[35]

Areas affected in Victoria

Area (km²)
Buildings destroyed
Cudgee & Ballangeich
Otway Ranges
East Trentham & Mount Macedon
Belgrave Heights & Upper Beaconsfield
many (total not known)
Source: Victorian Government Department of Sustainability and Environment[dead link]

See also


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  2. 2.0 2.1 "Ash Wednesday bushfire - 1983". Department of Sustainability and Environment. Retrieved 16 February 2012.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. CFS :: Bushfire History
  4. "About Ash Wednesday". Country Fire Authority Victoria, Australia. Retrieved 10 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. 5.0 5.1 "Australian Climate Extremes – Fire". Australian Government – Bureau of Meteorology. Archived from the original on 17 March 2009. Retrieved 10 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. 6.0 6.1 Collins, Paul (2006). Burn: The Epic Story of Bushfire in Australia. Sydney: Allen and Unwin. ISBN 1-74175-053-9.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Memorials to Firefighters: Remembering Our Fallen". South Australian Country Fire Service Promotions Unit. CFS. Retrieved 16 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. 8.0 8.1 Murray, Robert; Kate White (1995). State of Fire: A History of Volunteer Firefighting and the Country Fire Authority in Victoria. Melbourne, Australia: Hargreen Publishing Company. ISBN 0-949905-63-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. 9.0 9.1 Webster, Joan (2000). The Complete Bushfire Safety Book. Sydney, Australia: Random House Australia. ISBN 1-74051-034-8.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  10. Miller, S.I (1984). Report of the Bushfire Review Committee: On Bushfire Disaster Preparedness and Response in Victoria, Australia Following The Ash Wednesday Fires 16 February 1983. Melbourne, Australia: State Government of Victoria. pp. 23–24.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  11. Smith, Stewart (2002). "Bushfires. Briefing Paper No. 5/02" (PDF). NSW Parliamentary Research Library Research Service. Retrieved 17 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  12. "Economic Costs of Natural Disasters in Australia. (Report 103)" (PDF). Bureau of Infrastructure Transport and Regional Economics, Australian Government. 2001. Retrieved 25 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  13. 13.0 13.1 "Hazards, Disasters, and Your Community" (PDF). Emergency Management Australia. Archived from the original (PDF) on 16 October 2007. Retrieved 22 February 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  14. "Insurance Council Catastrophe Information". Insurance Council of Australia. Archived from the original on 10 May 2008. Retrieved 17 May 2008. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  15. "CFS Media Release: Ash Wednesday Memorial". CFS Public Affairs. 15 February 2006. Retrieved 19 May 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  16. Ash Wednesday, Security and Emergency Management Office, Government of South Australia; posted 2006-08-25; retrieved 2012-01-20 (via
  17. See Bureau of Meteorology; Monthly Weather Review: Victoria; December 1982, for details
  18. Green, H.J.; 'Results of rainfall observations made in Victoria: supplementary volume : including all available annual rainfall totals from 1326 stations for years 1911-1936 inclusive, and monthly and yearly totals from 239 representative stations for the entire periods for which records are available up to the end of 1935, with maps and diagrams. Published 1937 by Australian Bureau of Meteorology
  19. "Ash Wednesday". Gisborne CFA. Archived from the original on 8 October 2007. Retrieved 24 February 2008. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  20. "The Melbourne dust-storm of February 1983". Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Archived from the original on 17 March 2009. Retrieved 25 February 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  21. Natural Hazards, Atlas of South Australia 1986
  22. "McArthur's Fire Danger Index". CSIRO. Archived from the original on 6 March 2009. Retrieved 3 March 2009. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  23. "High Risk Weather Patterns – South Australia". Australian Bureau of Meteorology. Retrieved 17 July 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
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  25. "Ash Wednesday". New Dimensions in Time. ABC. Retrieved 23 February 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  26. Ash Wednesday bushfires Professional Historians Association (South Australia)
  27. "16th February, 1983". Narre Warren Fire Brigade. Archived from the original on 20 February 2008. Retrieved 22 February 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  28. 28.0 28.1 28.2 28.3 Baxter, John (1984). Who Burned Australia?: The Ash Wednesday Fires. Kent: New English Library. ISBN 0-450-05749-6.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  29. "Ash Wednesday archive footage, Channel 7 News report 1983". Retrieved 22 February 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  30. "General Network Information". South Australian Government Radio Network page. Retrieved 22 February 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>[dead link]
  31. "Understanding building infrastructure performance in bushfires". CSIRO. Archived from the original on 4 November 2007. Retrieved 9 March 2008. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  32. Schauble, John (13 January 2005). "When making the right choice is a matter of life and death". The Age. Australia. Retrieved 23 February 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  33. Press release (16 February 2003). "Lessons learned from Ash Wednesday". University of Adelaide. Archived from the original on 4 March 2008. Retrieved 23 February 2008. Unknown parameter |deadurl= ignored (help)<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  34. Burgess, Matthew (16 February 2008). "Ash Wednesday scars remain 25 years on". The Age. Australia. Retrieved 22 February 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  35. Ashley Walsh (16 February 2008). "Ash Wednesday Exhibition at Prospect Hill". ABC Adelaide. Australia: ABC. Archived from the original on 20 February 2008. Retrieved 9 March 2008.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

External links