Australia — Living in such a fire-prone land has exacted a heart-wrenching toll.
As is the convention with hurricanes and cyclones of major destructive impact, Victoria’s most historically devastating bushfires have earned individual names.
Gippsland Sunday Night, February 20, 1898 by John Longstaff. Source: Courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria
We’ve had ”Black Thursday” (1851), ”Red Tuesday” (1898), ”Black Friday” (1939), ”Ash Wednesday” (1983) and the latest and worst in the country’s history in terms of lives lost (173 people), the ”Black Saturday” conflagration of February 7, 2009, that is so fresh in the memory, it can, as the old timers used to say, ”scarcely be spoken of without a shudder”.
As one of the most fire-prone regions on the planet, there have been hundreds of other terrible wildfires across the state. In fact, even a relatively minor blaze that in 1944 raged through the tea trees behind Ricketts Point is still reflected in bushfire overlays that cover some of the beachside streets of thoroughly suburbanised Beaumaris and Mentone.
The top five on the big-fire tally board were terrifying events of almost biblical proportions that all arose from a collision of environmental, seasonal and climactic conditions. They all happened in January or early February and mostly followed years of drought.
These fires all occurred on days of slaying heat and low humidity when ”the very leaves on the trees crackled in the heat”.
On Black Saturday, the mercury reached 48.8 degrees. On Ash Wednesday (February 16, 1983), it got to 43 degrees and was accompanied by 100km/h winds.
On Black Thursday (February 6, 1851), following a month of winds that blew down from the north ”like the breath of a furnace”, the temperature by 11am was nudging 47 degrees.
A huge dust storm blew across a Melbourne township that was only 16 years old. It was very quickly followed by smoke and ash.
During what became Victoria’s most extensive wildfire, citizens stood on the hill in Flagstaff Gardens and watched as a quarter of their nascent state – 5 million hectares, from Portland to Dandenong – burnt over several days. Ships 39 kilometres away reported seeing ”flakes of floating fire” and feeling a heat that was unbelievably intense at such a distance.
Although wildfire has been identified as Victoria’s ”terrible and frequent evil”, any qualification of a relative death toll is an unpardonable understatement. Yet, on Black Thursday, ”only” 12 people died because so few lived on the flammable frontiers.
On Black Friday, 1939, when it reached 45 degrees in the shade, hundreds of people in the forests of the Yarra Ranges were living in little timber towns and in shacks beside bush timber mills. ”Men who had lived all their lives in the bush in dread expectancy” of fires had made no preparation to deal with the one that was about to roar towards them.
”Fires began to leap from mountain to mountain”, while trees ”of great size were blown clear from the earth”. One mill worker dived for safety in a pile of sawdust. Others sought creeks and wombat holes. Horses died standing in their harnesses. Five towns were destroyed, 71 people lost their lives, 700 homes and 69 sawmills were burnt.
It was the 1939 bushfires that made such an impact on 75 per cent of Victoria and the skies over Tasmania and New Zealand, the Country Fire Authority was formed. Today it is one of the largest voluntary land-based emergency organisations in the world.