Bushfires in Australia

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Looking towards the town Swifts Creek, Victoria, in December 2006 during the Victorian Alpine Fires
Intense bushfires can seriously impact the environment, such as here by the Big River, near Anglers Rest, East Gippsland, after the 2003 Victorian fires

Bushfires in Australia are frequent events during the warmer months of the year, due to Australia's mostly hot, dry climate. Each year, such fires impact extensive areas. On one hand, they can cause property damage and loss of human life. On the other hand, certain native flora in Australia have evolved to rely on bushfires as a means of reproduction, and fire events are an interwoven and an essential part of the ecology of the continent. For thousands of years, Indigenous Australians have used fire to foster grasslands for hunting and to clear tracks through dense vegetation.

Major firestorms that result in severe loss of life are often named based on the day on which they occur, such as Ash Wednesday and Black Saturday. Some of the most intense, extensive and deadly bushfires commonly occur during droughts and heat waves, such as the 2009 Southern Australia heat wave, which precipitated the conditions during the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires in which 173 people lost their lives. Other major conflagrations include the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires, the 2003 Eastern Victorian alpine bushfires and the 2006 December Bushfires.

Global warming is increasing the frequency and severity of bushfires.[1]


The term "bushfire" builds on the concept of "the bush", referring to sparsely-inhabited regions. Bushfires in Australia are generally defined as uncontrolled, non-structural fires burning in a grass, scrub, bush, or forested area. Australia, being a geographically and meteorogically diverse continent, experiences many types of bushfires. There are two main categories, depending on local topography.

  • Hilly/mountainous fires – burn in hilly, mountainous or alpine areas which are usually densely forested. The land is less accessible and not conducive to agriculture, thus many of these densely forested areas have been saved from deforestation and are protected by national, state and other parks. The steep terrain increases the speed and intensity of a firestorm. Where settlements are located in hilly or mountainous areas, bushfires can pose a threat to both life and property.
  • Flat/grassland fires – burn along flat plains or areas of small undulation, predominantly covered in grasses or scrubland. These fires can move quickly, fanned by high winds in flat topography, and they quickly consume the small amounts of fuel/vegetation available. These fires pose less of a threat to settlements as they rarely reach the same intensity seen in major firestorms as the land is flat, the fires are easier to map and predict, and the terrain is more accessible for firefighting personnel. Many regions of predominantly flat terrain in Australia have been almost completely deforested for agriculture, reducing the fuel loads which would otherwise facilitate fires in these areas.

Common causes of bushfires include lightning, arcing from overhead power lines, arson, accidental ignition in the course of agricultural clearing, grinding and welding activities, campfires, cigarettes and dropped matches, sparks from machinery, and controlled burn escapes.

Looking towards Dargo, Victoria from Swifts Creek, 11 January 2006


File:Epicormic Shoots from an Epicormic Bud on Eucalyptus following Bushfire 2, near Anglers Rest, Vic, Aust, jjron 27.3.2005.jpg
Epicormic shoots sprouting vigorously from epicormic buds beneath the thick bushfire damaged bark of a Eucalyptus tree – one of the strategies evolved by plants to survive bushfires
Bushfire damage to forests in East Gippsland, Victoria from the Bogong Fire Complex of 2003, two years after fires swept through the area, showing the recovery of trees and undercroft

The natural fire regime in Australia was altered by the arrival of humans. Fires became more frequent, and fire-loving species—notably eucalypts—greatly expanded their range.[2] It is assumed that a good deal of this change came about as the result of deliberate action by early humans, setting fires to clear undergrowth or drive game.[3]

Plants have evolved a variety of strategies to survive (or even require) bushfires, (possessing epicormic shoots or lignotubers that sprout after a fire, or developing fire-resistant or fire-triggered seeds) or even encourage fire (eucalypts contain flammable oils in the leaves) as a way to eliminate competition from less fire-tolerant species.[4]

Some native animals are also adept at surviving bushfires.[5]


In 2009, a standardised Fire Danger Rating (FDR) was adopted by all Australian states. During the fire season the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) provides fire weather forecasts and by considering the predicted weather including temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and dryness of vegetation, fire agencies determine the appropriate Fire Danger Rating.[6] In 2010, following a national review of the bush fire danger ratings, new trigger points for each rating were introduced for grassland areas in most jurisdictions. See for example the following glossary[7]

Fire Danger Ratings are a feature of weather forecasts and alert the community to the actions they should take in preparation of the day. Ratings are broadcast via newspapers, radio, TV, and the internet.

Fire Danger Rating
Category Fire Danger Index
Catastrophic / Code Red Forest 100+ Grass 150+
Extreme Forest 75–100 Grass 100–150
Severe Forest 50–75 Grass 50–100
Very high 25–50
High 12–25
Low to moderate 0–12

Regional management

The Australasian Fire Authorities Council (AFAC) is the peak body responsible for representing fire, emergency services and land management agencies in the Australasian region.


The Rural Fire Service (RFS) is a volunteer-based firefighting agency and operates as part of the Queensland Fire and Emergency Services.[8]

New South Wales

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) is a volunteer-based firefighting agency and statutory body of the Government of New South Wales.[9]

South Australia

The Country Fire Service is a volunteer based fire service in the state of South Australia. The CFS operates as a part of the South Australian Fire and Emergency Services Commission (SAFECOM).


Major bushfires in Victoria in the 2000s

In Victoria, the Country Fire Authority (CFA) provides firefighting and other emergency services to country areas and regional townships within the state, as well as large portions of the outer suburban areas and growth corridors of Melbourne not covered by the Metropolitan Fire Brigade.[10]

Western Australia

The Department of Fire and Emergency Services of Western Australia (DFES) and the Department of Parks and Wildlife (P&W) have joint responsibility for bushfire management in Western Australia.[11] DFES is an umbrella organisation supporting the Bush Fire Brigade volunteers, Emergency Services Cadets, Fire and Rescue Service, State Emergency Service, Volunteer Emergency Service, Volunteer Fire Service, Volunteer Fire and Rescue Service, and the Volunteer Marine Rescue Services.

Guidelines for survival

Local authorities provide education and information for residents in bushfire-prone regions regarding the location of current fires,[12] preservation of life and property[13] and when to escape by car.[14]


Bushfires in Australia can occur all year-round, though the severity and the "bushfire season" varies by region.[15] These seasons are commonly grouped into years such as "2006-07 Australian bushfire season" and typically run from June one year until May the next year.

In southeast Australia, bushfires tend to be most common and most severe during summer and autumn (December–March), in drought years, and particularly severe in El Niño years. Southeast Australia is fire-prone, and warm and dry conditions intensify the probability of fire.[16] In northern Australia, bushfires usually occur during the dry season (April to September),[17] and fire severity tends to be more associated with seasonal weather patterns. In the southwest, similarly, bushfires occur in the summer dry season and severity is usually related to seasonal growth. Fire frequency in the north is difficult to assess, as the vast majority of fires are caused by human activity, however lightning strikes are as common a cause as human-ignited fires and arson.

Climate change

Australia's climate has been trending toward more bushfire weather over the last 30 years.[18] The Climate Commission found that "The intensity and seasonality of large bushfires in south-east Australia appears to be changing, with climate change a possible contributing factor."[19]

A 2006 report by the Bushfire CRC acknowledges the complexity of climate predictions pointing out "Much of [Australia's] vegetation has a complex evolutionary and dependent relationship with fire. Fire has been part of these environments for tens of thousands of years and much native flora and fauna remains dependent on it in various ways."[20] In 2007, a study by the CSIRO (the national government body for scientific research in Australia), found evidence that climate change will lead to increases in very high and extreme fire danger rating days and earlier onset of the fire season.[21] Other studies investigating the historical record identify significant changes in Australia's bushfire season as a result of human activity.[22]

Major bushfires in Australia

Bushfires have accounted for over 800 deaths in Australia since 1851 and the total accumulated cost is estimated at $1.6 billion.[23] In terms of monetary cost however, they rate behind the damage caused by drought, severe storms, hail, and cyclones,[24] perhaps because they most commonly occur outside highly populated urban areas.

Some of the most severe Australian bushfires, in chronological order, have included:

Fire Location Area burned
1 ha ≈ 2.5 acres
Date Human Deaths Properties damaged
Black Thursday bushfires Victoria ≈ 5 million hectares (ha) 6 February 1851 about 12 1 million sheep; thousands of cattle[25][26]
Red Tuesday bushfires Victoria 260,000 ha 1 February 1898 12 2,000 buildings[26]
1926 bushfires Victoria February – March 1926 60[27] 1000
Black Friday bushfires Victoria 2 million ha December 1938 – January 1939, peaking 13 January 1939 71 3,700
1944 Bushfires Victoria 1 million ha estimated 14 January – 14 February 1944 15–20 more than 500 houses[26]
1951-2 Bushfires Victoria Summer 1951–52 at least 10[28]
Black Sunday Bushfires South Australia 39,000 ha - 160,000 ha 2 January 1955 2 40 dwellings including the Governor's summer residence at Marble Hill
1961 Western Australian bushfires[29] Western Australia 1,800,000 ha January–March 1961 0 160 homes
1962 bushfires Victoria 14–16 January 1962 32 450 houses[27]
Southern Highlands bushfires New South Wales 5–14 March 1965 3 59 homes
Tasmanian "Black Tuesday" bushfires Tasmania Approximately 264,000 ha 7 February 1967 62 1,293 homes[26]
Dandenong Ranges Bushfire Victoria 1,920 ha 19 February 1968 53 homes 10 other buildings
1969 bushfires Victoria 8 January 1969 23 230 houses[27]
Western Districts Bushfires Victoria 103,000 ha 12 February 1977 4 116 houses, 340 Buildings
1978 Western Australian Bushfires Western Australia 114,000 ha 4 April 1978 2 6 buildings (drop in wind in early evening is said to have saved the towns of Donnybrook, Boyup Brook, Manjimup, and Bridgetown.)
1979 Sydney bushfires Sydney, and Region NSW December 1979 5 28 homes destroyed, 20 homes damaged[30]
1980 Waterfall bushfire Waterfall, NSW >1 million ha 3 November 1980 5 firefighters 14 homes[31]
Ash Wednesday bushfires South Australia and Victoria 418,000 ha 16 February 1983 75 about 2,400 houses
Central Victoria Bushfires Victoria 50,800 ha 14 January 1985 3 180+ houses
1994 Eastern seaboard fires New South Wales ≈400,000 ha[32] 27 December 1993 – 16 January 1994 4 225 homes
Wooroloo Bushfire Western Australia 10,500 ha 8 January 1997 0 16 homes
Dandenongs bushfire Victoria 400 21 January 1997 3 41 homes[33]
Lithgow bushfire New South Wales 2 December 1997 2[33]
Perth and SW Region bushfires Western Australia 23,000 ha 2 December 1997 2 (21 injuries) 1 home lost
Linton bushfire Victoria 2 December 1998 5
Black Christmas New South Wales 300,000 ha 25 December 2001 – 2002 0 121 homes
2003 Canberra bushfires Canberra, Australian Capital Territory 160,000 ha[26] 18–22 January 2003 4 almost 500 homes[33]
2003 Eastern Victorian alpine bushfires Victoria over 1.3 million ha 8 January – 8 March 2003 3 41 homes
Tenterden Western Australia December 2003 2 (2,110,000 ha of forest burnt during the 2002–2003 bushfire season in the S/W of WA)
Eyre Peninsula "Black Tuesday" bushfire South Australia 145,000 ha 10–12 January 2005 9 93 homes
2006 Central Coast bushfire Central Coast, New South Wales New Years Day, 2006
Jail Break Inn Fire Junee, New South Wales 30,000 ha[34] New Years Day 2006 0 Livestock losses estimated to be over 20,000. Seven homes, seven headers and four shearing sheds destroyed. 1,500 kilometres (930 mi) of fencing damaged.[35]
2005 Victorian bushfires Victoria 160,000 ha December 2005 – January 2006 4 57 houses, 359 farm buildings, 65,000 stock losses, fires occurred in the Stawell, Moondarra, Anakie, Yea, and Kinglake regions[36]
Grampians Bushfire Victoria 184,000 January 2006 2
Pulletop bushfire Wagga Wagga, New South Wales 9,000 6 February 2006 0 2,500 sheep and 6 cattle killed, 3 vehicles and 2 hay sheds destroyed as well as 50 km of fencing.
The Great Divides Fire Victoria 1,048,000 ha 1 Dec 2006 – March 2007 1 51 homes
2006-07 Australian bushfire season September 2006 – January 2007
Dwellingup bushfire Western Australia 12,000 ha 4 February 2007 0 16
Kangaroo Island Bushfires South Australia 95,000 ha 6–14 December 2007 1
Boorabbin National Park Western Australia 40,000 ha 30 December 2007 3 Powerlines and Great Eastern Highway, forced to close for 2 weeks
Black Saturday bushfires Victoria 450,000+ ha 7 February 2009 – 14 March 2009 173 2,029+ houses, 2,000 other structures
Toodyay Bushfire Western Australia 3,000+ ha 29 December 2009 0 38
Lake Clifton Bushfire Western Australia 2,000+ ha 11 January 2011 0 10 homes destroyed
Roleystone Kelmscott Bushfire Western Australia 1,500+ ha 6–8 February 2011 0 72 homes destroyed, 32 damaged, Buckingham Bridge on Brookton Highway collapsed and closed for 3 weeks whilst a temporary bridge was constructed and opened a month after the fires
Margaret River Bushfire Western Australia 4,000 ha 24 November 2011 0 34 homes destroyed including the historic Wallcliffe House[37]
Tasmanian Bushfires Tasmania 20,000+ ha 4 January 2013 1 At least 170 buildings
Warrumbungle Bushfire New South Wales 54,000 ha 18 January 2013 0 At least 53 homes, 118 sheds, agricultural machinery and livestock. Infrastructure destroyed at Siding Spring Observatory.[38]
2013 New South Wales bushfires New South Wales 100,000+ ha 17 October- 28 October 1 As of 19 October 2013 at least 248 buildings destroyed statewide (inc. 208 dwellings),[39] another 109 damaged in Springwood, Winmalee and Yellow Rock[40][41]

Major fires also occurred in the Hunter, Central Coast, Macarthur and Port Stephens regions causing significant damage.

Carnarvon bushfire complex Western Australia 800,000 ha + 27 December 2011 - 3 February 2012 0 11 pastoral stations (fences, watering systems, water points, stock feed).
2014 Parkerville bushfire Western Australia 386 ha 12 January 2014 0 56 homes.
2015 Sampson Flat bushfires South Australia 20,000 ha 2 January - 9 January 2015 0 27 homes, 140 outbuildings
2015 O'Sullivan bushfire (Northcliffe - Windy Harbour) Western Australia 98,923 ha 29 January – 20 February 2015 0 1 home and 1 inhabited shed, 5 farm sheds and thousands of hectares of production forests (karri and jarrah) or national parks.
2015 Lower Hotham bushfire (Boddington) Western Australia 52,373 ha January 2015 0 1 house, 1 farm shed, 1 bridge and thousands of hectares of production forest (jarrah) or national parks.
2015 Esperance bushfires Western Australia more than 200,000 ha[42] October – November 2015 4[43] About 10 houses and public buildings (Scaddan), 15,000 stock losses, 5 Nature Reserves et most area of Cape Arid national park.
Perth Hills bushfire complex - Solus Group Western Australia 10,016 ha 15 to 24 November 2015 0 Jarrah production forest and Conservation Park.
2015 Pinery Bushfire South Australia More than 85,000 ha 25 November - 2 December 2015 2 470+ buildings
2016 Murray Road bushfire (Waroona and Harvey)[44] Western Australia 69,165 ha January 2016 2 181 dwellings (166 only in Yarloop) and thousands of hectares of Lane Poole Reserve and production forest (jarrah).
2017 New South Wales bushfires New South Wales 52,000+ ha February 11–14, 2017 0 35 dwellings.[45]
2017 Carwoola Fire New South Wales 3,500 ha February 17–18, 2017 0 11 dwellings destroyed; 12 damaged.[46]

See also


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External links