Bushfire history - Major bushfires in Victoria
|Fire has been present on the Australian continent for millions of years and has been significant in shaping much of the landscape. Many fires were started by lightning. For many thousands of years, Aboriginal people have used fire for a variety of purposes. These included the encouragement of grasslands for hunting purposes and the clearing of tracks through dense vegetation.
Because there are few comprehensive records of specific bushfire events prior to, or in the early stages of European settlement, the following chronology includes only those bushfire events that have occurred since 1851.
1851: 6 February 'Black Thursday'
Fires covered a quarter of what is now Victoria (approximately 5 million hectares). Areas affected include Portland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts. Approximately 12 lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost.
1898: 1 February 'Red Tuesday'
Fires burnt 260,000 hectares in South Gippsland. Twelve lives and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed.
Destructive and widespread fires are reported to have occurred in 1905 and 1906. Fires extended from Gippsland to the Grampians in 1912. In 1914, fires burnt more than 100,000 hectares. In 1919 extensive fires occurred in the Otway Ranges.
1926: February - March
Forest fires burnt across large areas of Gippsland throughout February and into early March. Sixty lives were lost in addition to widespread damage to farms, homes and forests. The fires came to a head on February 14, with 31 deaths recorded at Warburton. Other areas affected include Noojee, Kinglake, Erica, and the Dandenong Ranges. Widespread fires also occurred across other eastern states.
Major fires occurred in many districts across Victoria throughout the summer. Large areas of State forest in Gippsland were burnt and nine lives were lost.
1939: 13 January 'Black Friday'
From December 1938 to January 1939, fires burnt 1.5 to 2 million hectares, including 800,000 hectares of protected forest, 600,000 hectares of reserved forest and 4,000 hectares of plantations. The fire severity peaked on Friday January 13 - "Black Friday". The fires caused seventy one fatalities and destroyed more than 650 buildings and the township of Narbethong. The findings of the Royal Commission that was held following the fires were highly significant in increasing fire awareness and prevention throughout Australia.
The fires affected almost every section of Victoria. Areas hardest hit included Noojee, Woods Point, Omeo, Warrandyte, and Yarra Glen. Other areas affected include Warburton, Erica, Rubicon, Dromana, Mansfield, the Otway Ranges and the Grampian Ranges.
1942: 3 - 4 March
Fires in South Gippsland caused one human fatality, large losses of stock and destroyed more than 20 homes and 2 farms.
1943: 22 December
The first major fire of the 1943/44 season occurred near Wangaratta, killing ten people and burning hundreds of hectares of grassland.
1944: 14 January - 14 February
Fires in the Western Districts destroyed over 500 houses and caused huge losses in the pastoral industry. Four or more grass fires near Hamilton, Dunkeld, Skipton and Lake Bolac burnt approximately 440,000 hectares in eight hours. Records indicate that between fifteen and twenty people died as a result of these fires. The total area covered by grass fires that season was estimated to be in the order of 1 million hectares.
1952: 5 February
A fire that originated on the Hume Highway near Benalla burnt approximately 100,000 hectares and caused the deaths of several people.
1962: 14 - 16 January
Fires in the Dandenong Ranges and on the outskirts of Melbourne caused thirty two fatalities and destroyed over 450 houses. Areas severely affected include The Basin, Christmas Hills, Kinglake, St Andrews, Hurstbridge, Warrandyte and Mitcham.
1965: 17 January
A major grass fire burning near Longwood in Northern Victoria caused seven fatalities and burnt six houses.
1965: 21 February - 13 March
Fires in Gippsland burnt for 17 days, covering 300,000 hectares of forest and 15,000 hectares of grassland. Over 60 buildings and 4,000 stock were destroyed.
1968: 19 February
A fire in the Dandenong Ranges burnt 1,920 hectares and destroyed 53 houses and over 10 other buildings. Areas affected include The Basin and Upwey.
1969: 8 January
280 fires broke out on the 8th of January 1969. Of these, 12 grass fires reached major proportions and burnt 250,000 hectares. Areas seriously affected included Lara, Daylesford, Dulgana, Yea, Darraweit, Kangaroo Flat and Korongvale. Twenty-three people died, including 17 motorists at Lara, trapped on the Geelong to Melbourne freeway. The fires also destroyed 230 houses, 21 other buildings and more than 12,000 stock.
1972: 14 December
A fire at Mount Buffalo burnt for 12 days, covering an area of approximately 12,140 hectares. This area included 7,400 hectares of State forest and 4,520 hectares of National Park.
1977: 12 February
Widespread fires occurred across the Western District of Victoria, mostly in grasslands. The fires caused the deaths of four people and burnt approximately 103,000 hectares. More than 198,500 stock, 116 houses and 340 buildings were lost.
1980: 28 December - 6 January 1981
A fire started from a lightning strike on December 28, 1980 and continued to burn through until 6 January 1981. The fire burnt 119,000 hectares in the Sunset Country and the Big Desert.
1983: 31 January
Fires in the Cann River forest district burnt more than 250,000 hectares including large areas of State forest.
1983: 1 February
A fire at Mt Macedon burnt 6,100 hectares including 1,864 hectares of State forest. Fifty houses were destroyed.
1983: 16 February 'Ash Wednesday'
Australia’s most well-known bushfire event. Over 100 fires in Victoria burnt 210,000 hectares and caused forty seven fatalities. More than 27,000 stock and 2,000 houses were lost. Areas severely affected included Monivae, Branxholme, East Trentham, Mt Macedon, the Otway Ranges, Warburton, Belgrave Heights, Cockatoo, Beaconsfield Upper and Framlingham (see also Ash Wednesday pages).
1985: 14 January
A large number of fires started on 14 January, predominantly from lightning. A major fire in Central Victoria burnt 50,800 hectares of land, including 17,600 hectares of Crown Land. Three people died and over 180 houses, 500 farms and 46,000 stock were destroyed as a result of the fire - areas affected including Avoca, Maryborough, and Little River. A large number of fires also started through the alpine area, with the largest at Mt Buffalo burning 51,400 hectares. In total one hundred and eleven fires started on public land on 14 January 1985 and it took two weeks to bring the fires under control.
1985 summary of bushfires on public land
1997: 21 January
Five major fires broke out including fires in the Dandenong Ranges that caused three fatalities, destroyed 41 houses and burnt 400 hectares. Other areas affected include Arthurs Seat, Eildon State Park, Gippsland and Creswick.
1998: 9 January New Years Eve
A fire reported on New Years Eve continued to burn for 10 days and burnt a total of 32,000 hectares. Of this area, 22,000 hectares was in the Alpine National Park (12,500 hectares of which is Wilderness or Remote Natural Area) and 10,000 hectares was in the Carey River State Forest. The suspected cause of the fire was a campfire.
2002: December Big Desert Fire
Lightning in the North West caused two fires - one in the Big Desert Wilderness Park and another in the adjoining Wyperfield National Park on 17 December. Fanned by dry fuel and poor weather conditions, these fires joined to eventually burn 181,400 hectares. An abandoned house was destroyed, as well as 400 hectares of private property. The fire was later declared safe on 31 December after 25mm rain fell in the area. .
2003: Eastern Victorian (Alpine) Fires
Eighty seven fires were started by lightning in the north east of Victoria on 8 January 2003. Eight of these fires were unable to be contained - they joined together to form the largest fire in Victoria since the 1939 "Black Friday" bushfires. Burning for 59 days before being contained, the Alpine fires burnt over 1.3 million hectares, 41 homes and over 9,000 livestock, with thousands of kilometres of fencing also being destroyed. Areas affected include Mt Buffalo, Bright, Dinner Plain, Benambra and Omeo.
2005 - 2006
Across Victoria more than 500 fires broke out between New Year’s Eve and the end of January 2006. The fires with greatest impact on the Victorian community occurred in the Stawell (Deep Lead), Yea, Moondarra, Grampians, Kinglake and Anakie areas. There were four fatalities in these fires. Fifty seven houses were destroyed and 359 farm buildings lost. Stock losses totalled more than 64,000. These fires burnt around 160,000 hectares. Approximately 60% of this area was public land and 40% private property.
2006 - 2007
Fire agencies responded to more than 1,000 fires across Victoria from mid-December 2006 to mid-March 2007. The total area burnt by these fires on public and private land exceeding 1,200,000 hectares. The two most serious fires occurred in the north east (the ‘Great Divide North’ fire) and Gippsland (the ‘Great Divide South’ fire). These fires were eventually contained in mid February 2007 after burning for 59 days. The Great Divide North and South fires burned a total of 1,048,238 hectares, almost entirely on public land. Other significant fires burning at the same time as the Great Divide fires were the Tawonga Gap fire (33,590 hectares) and the Tatong-Watchbox Creek Track fire (31,810 hectares). There was one fatality, fifty one houses destroyed and 1,741 stock lost as a result of these fires.
2009: 7 February 'Black Saturday'
On 7 February 2009, Victoria was devastated by the worst bushfires in Australia’s history when 173 people lost their lives. Around 78 communities were directly impacted and entire towns were left unrecognisable. The fires burnt more than 2,000 properties and 61 businesses. Police stations, schools and kindergartens, fire and emergency services facilities, churches, community halls and sporting clubs were also destroyed or badly damaged. Almost 430,000 hectares of land were directly affected, including 70 national parks and reserves and over 3,550 agricultural facilities. Maps have been produced showing the extent of areas affected by these fires.
These fires were the subject of a Royal Commission.