Australia — Saturday marks 25 years since the Ash Wednesday bushfires claimed 47 lives and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in Victoria. While Gippsland wasn’t nearly as badly affected as areas around Melbourne and the west of the state, it wasn’t unscathed either.
As Dennis Matthews – chief ranger for fire and emergency management for Parks Victoria’s eastern region – goes about his work today he will drive to Cann River to attend a meeting. As he does so he will pass through bush where, 25 years ago as a young coastal ranger, he was involved in an intense fire-fight in trying conditions.
In the summer of 1982/1983 a massive bushfire raged in the Cann River area. Sparked by lightning, it burnt for 13 weeks in hot, dry conditions. It would eventually burn through around 127,000 hectares of bush and would be remembered as one of the worst fires the region had seen.
On February 16 1983, the crew fighting the blaze had had enough. They were exhausted, looking forward to some time-off and felt they were well overdue a crew change. They were also oblivious to what was happening in other parts of Victoria that day.
As Dennis remembers, the incident controller on the fire brought the crew together at dusk.
“He said: ‘Right, I know a lot of people want to go home, I know you’ve been at this for a long time. The season has been long and we’re all wearing out, but I’m going to tell you now why you are not going home,'” Dennis recalls.
A Victorian farm, burnt out in the Ash Wednesday bushfires on February 16 1983. (Supplied by the Department of Sustainability and Environment)
“With a blackboard and a piece of chalk he started to write down the locations of places affected by the run of fire west of Melbourne and around Melbourne. And he started to write down the numbers of people killed and the numbers of houses known to be destroyed.”
“In a very simple, symbolic way he explained to us why we weren’t going home. At that point we just accepted that, said no more and got on with the job. It was a profound moment.”
Dennis says he and fellow fire-fighters were numbed by the news.
“Everybody just shut up,” Dennis says. “It was a fairly tough and emotional time for all of us.”
The power and fury of bushfire on Ash Wednesday taught fire-fighters and the public a lot about the nature of fire and the way it could run in certain conditions, Dennis says.
“The learning was that huge fires are incredibly dangerous. We have to make sure that we’ve got our fire-fighters and our public really well-co-ordinated and protected.
“If you’ve got a certain kind of day that will host hard-running, difficult fire there’s nothing you can do either in front of it, or on the flanks to stop it. It’s about saving life and property, but life first, often property has to come a quick second,” Dennis says.
He says in the intense bushfires of 2003 one fire-fighter was drowned in the Gippsland region but there were no other fatalities, and in the 2006/2007 bushfire season no fire-fighters were killed and many public assets were saved from fire.
“We did that because of the learnings of Ash Wednesday. We conducted ourselves in very, very safe ways and achieved some really good outcomes in the field.”
He said Ash Wednesday had jolted fire-fighting services to re-examine how they tackled bushfire.
“From communications, to the way we transport people, to the way we use aircraft, dozers, the way we configure people across the landscape. It made us look hard at that. It made us look at how we configure our incident management teams, how we train people. There were a lot of fall-outs from Ash Wednesday.
But Dennis says despite all that was learnt from Ash Wednesday and subsequent horror fire seasons such as 2003 and the 2006/2007 season, he was sure that a situation like Ash Wednesday could happen again in Victoria.
“I’m a believer in climate change and we are learning from our people in science that these kind of situations, there will be more of them.
“This is Victoria, Australia, we get days in this state where you get the feeling that green grass would burn. If you get the right sort of winds and hot temperatures and driving conditions from the north day after day in a heatwave type situation you are going to find that the run of fire can and will happen.