Fire Season 2002 - 2003
- The fire season
- Number and causes of fires
- Eastern Victorian Alpine Fires
- Maps of Eastern Victorian Alpine Fires
- Resource information
- Community information
The fire seasonNearly five years of drought and widespread dry conditions led Australia into one of its driest and warmest years on record in 2002. Victoria experienced an exceptionally dry year, with a spring rainfall well below average, and warmer and drier than average winter and spring months. As a result, the State’s forests and lands dried out significantly in the lead up to fire season and by late November, forest fire activity was running around 2 months ahead of normal. By the end of November the total number of forest fires reached 328, compared to the 20-year average of 120 fires. This figure ran only slightly behind the Ash Wednesday season, indicating that a bad fire season was imminent.
Number and causes of firesVictoria has around 7.7 million hectares of State forest, National Parks and other reserves. DEPI is responsible for the management of fire on public land. In an average summer around 620 wildfires occur and these burn around 110,000 hectares. In the 2002-2003 fire season, 858 wildfires were attended by DEPI/DPI/PV staff, 8 of them being interstate. Lightning caused roughly 30% of all fires, the other major causes being the deliberate lighting of fires, campfires and barbeques and private and departmental burning/relights. In total, fires in the 2002-2003 season burnt over 1.34 million hectares.
Between July – November of 2002, fire activity had been most prominent in Gippsland and the North West, and deliberate lighting, campfires/barbeques and burning off (stubble, grass etc), were the predominant sources of fires. November, December and January were the most active fire months, with a count of 485 fires for the period. This is very comparable with the 20-year average of 196 for the three months – close to three times higher. The fire season was more pronounced in Gippsland and the North East during this time, mainly attributable to the dry lightning storms that swept across the area in early January, starting over 80 fires.
During the month of December 2002, 123 fires occurring on or threatening public land were recorded, of which the majorities were caused by lightning or were deliberately lit. The remaining fires were the result of accidental human activity or their cause was unknown. On Tuesday, December 17, afternoon lightning strikes in the Mallee region started 2 fires in the Big Desert Wilderness Park, to the west of Wyperfield National Park. By late Thursday afternoon, following the joining of the two fires around midday, more than 70,000 hectares, or approximately half of the Big Desert Wilderness Park, had burnt. The fire was one of the worst that state had seen in 20 years and posed a large threat to the wilderness and adjoining private land. Conditions were severe, with low humidity, temperatures reaching 42 degrees Celsius and winds gusting erratically, at up to 40km/hr at times. The Big Desert fire was declared contained on Tuesday, December 24 and safe on Tuesday, December 31, following easing weather conditions. The fire burnt a total area of over 181,400 hectares including 300 hectares of private farmland and scrub. The fire had perimeter of 350 km and up to 359km of control lines were established or maintained.
Four fires started by lightning strikes were also detected in the Kosciusko National Park near the Victorian border on December 20, 2002. All fires in and around Kosciusko National Park in NSW were declared contained on Tuesday, February 18. The fires burnt a total of 465,000 hectares of the park (67%) and 27,000 hectares of privately owned lands.
Eastern Victorian Alpine Fires215 fires were recorded in January 2003 and once more, most were caused by lightning strikes and deliberate lightings, with a lesser number the result of campfires or barbeques or unknown sources. The majority of fires in January started on the evening of January 7 when dry lightning storms swept through the Victorian Alps, starting around 87 fires. Again, severe conditions enabled the fires to take hold and spread rapidly. Within the first week, all but 9 of the fires in Victoria’s north east were declared contained. The remaining fires causing concern were in the following areas:
- Cravensville (north of Lake Dartmouth) - 2,250 hectares,
- Several fires 35 kilometres south of Corryong (Pinnabar Complex) that at the time totalled around 3,500 hectares (with several further fires burning just across the NSW border).
- Razorback (40 km north of Omeo) - 5,500 hectares.
- Mt Buffalo, NW side, over 800 hectares.
- Five fires in the Mt Beauty/Mt Bogong/Mt Feathertop area (almost 3,000 hectares).
MapsIn terms of extent and severity, the fires were the most substantial for Victoria since 1939, and among the most significant in Victoria's recorded history at that time. Three overview maps show fire severity, land tenure and forest type for the area burnt during the Eastern Victorian Alpine Fires.
Alpine fires 2003 map (small version)
Map of Public Land Affected by Fire in the 2002-2003 Fire Season
Thick smoke cover over the fire area often severely restricted aircraft activity in the northeast of the state and hampered both aerial suppression efforts and the monitoring of the fire from the air using infra-red aircraft. Additionally, erratic fire and weather behaviour often limited backburning opportunities. With conditions easing towards the end of the campaign and visibility improving, intense aerial water bombing was possible and detailed fire location data could be gathered using infra-red scanning aircraft, which aided fire managers considerably.
The Eastern Victorian fire was declared contained on March 7 and safe on April 30, 2003. It was the largest fire Victoria had experienced in over 60 years, burning around 1.12 million hectares of parks and forests (this figure includes the large number of lightning-caused fires that were contained in the first weeks of January) and destroying around 75,000 hectares of farmland, 41 houses, 200 other buildings, 3,000km of fencing and 110,000 head of stock. Although no lives were lost as a direct result of the fire, a DEPI firefighter tragically lost her life on February 26 when her vehicle was washed into a stream during a flash flood event. On the same day, a fixed-wing fire bombing aircraft crashed south of Mt Buffalo, injuring the pilot.
A detailed day-by-day narrative of the Victorian Alpine Fires is available online.
Resource informationDEPI (including Parks Victoria) had over 2,000 staff that are trained and available for fire duties. An additional 700-800 seasonal firefighters were employed during the fire season to support DEPI’s firefighting capability. A total of 687 personnel from DEPI/CFA were deployed to the Big Desert fires, along with a range of fixed winged aircraft, helicopters, dozers, rollers and tractors.
An inter-agency approach was taken in managing the Big Desert and Alpine fires, with involvement from the following agencies at different stages:
Alpine Shire Council, Australian Defence Force, Australian Red Cross, Country Fire Authority, Department of Human Services, Victoria Emergency Management, Department of Primary Industries, Department of Environment and Primary Industries, East Gippsland Shire Council, Hancocks Plantations, Indigo Shire Council, Metropolitan Fire and Emergency Services Board, National Rural Fire Authority (NZ), NSW Rural Fire Service, NSW State Forests, Parks Victoria, Powercorp, QLD Fire and Rescue Service, QLD Rural Fire Service, Red Cross, Rural Ambulance Victoria, Salvation Army, South Australian Country Fire Service, South Australian Parks & Wildlife Service, St John's Ambulance, State Emergency Service, Tasmanian Fire Service, Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service, Towong Shire Council, TXU, USA Department of Agriculture - Forests Service, USA Department of Interior - Bureaus of Land Management, Indian Affairs, National Parks Service, Fish & Wildlife Service, Victoria Police, Vic Roads, Wangaratta Rural City Council, WICEN (Wireless Institute Civil Emergency Network) and Wodonga Rural City Council.
At the peak of the North Eastern and Gippsland fires, some firefighting rotations involved the following resources:
- Over 1,700 CFA volunteers
- 3,350 DEPI/DPI/PV staff & firefighters
- 120 Army/Navy personnel
- 120 SES staff & volunteers
- Metropolitan Fire Brigade staff
- 584 SA personnel
- 31 Tasmanians
- 68 QLD personnel
- 62 New Zealanders
- 35 US personnel
- A large number of volunteers in support roles
- 350 specialised 4WD (slip-ons)
- 81 4WD Fire Tankers
- 31 First Attack dozers
- Around 80 large bulldozers from DEPI, the timber industry and the private sector
- 6 reconnaissance-type aircraft
- 8 light helicopters
- 10 fixed-wing aircraft
- 6 fire bombing helicopters
- 2 infra-red mapping aircraft
- 2 Erickson skycranes
- Over a dozen crew transport aircraft
Community informationConsidering the scale of the fires, the outcome of the fires, in terms of property and asset losses were significantly below what may have been expected. Many communities lived with the threat of fire for weeks and were put on high alert for ember attack during the fire campaign. The fires burnt throughout the same area that burnt 64 years ago in 1939, when low rainfall and similar conditions fuelled the Black Friday fires.
Some of the towns threatened where community members were advised to enact their Bushfire Plans included:
Harrietville, Wulgulmerang, Mt Beauty, Tallangatta, Hotham, Dartmouth, Mitta Mitta, Dellicknora, Falls Creek, Cabanandra, Swifts Creek, Ensay, Cassalis, Omeo, Bindi, Cobungra, Tubbut, Gelantipy, Deddick, Dargo, Bonang and Bendoc.
Around 90 community meetings were conducted in the North East and Gippsland. These provided local residents and visitors to the area with information about the current fire situation and to put in place on-going community networks. Around 8,700 people attended such meetings over the duration of the fire campaign. Farmers affected by fire were invited to two-hour on-farm information sessions to address key issues to influence farm recovery from the fires. Community newsletters were distributed twice daily, a Police Information line was established and the DEPI/DPI website constantly updated.
RehabilitationA Ministerial Taskforce for Bushfire Recovery was established by the then Premier MP Steve Bracks, to assess the impacts of fires on the economy, infrastructure, industries and communities in Victoria and quickly put in place a range of recovery measures. In total $201 million has been committed to fire suppression and recovery costs. This comprises $115 million in fire suppression costs, $3 million in financing support for concessional loans through the Rural Finance Corporation and $83.3 million in initiatives, focussing on social, business and environmental recovery.