Forest Fire History - A Timeline

Mike Leonard (bio) 


"In early pioneering days in this State, the fires which were inevitably associated with the clearing of land for agricultural and pastoral purposes caused comparatively little damage except to valuable stands of timber, but forest destruction in these days was regarded with complete equanimity and indeed was welcomed as desirable. When land was allotted for selection it was a condition of tenure that the settler should within a stipulated period clear a certain proportion of his land, the destruction of the forest crop thereon being credited to him as improvements to the property. The usual procedure adopted was to ringbark all the larger trees, fell the smaller ones, slash the scrub and undergrowth, and allow the accumulation of dead material to dry. Then on the first suitable hot, dry and preferably windy day the whole of this mass of inflammable debris was touched off with a match. Provided he was successful in obtaining a clean burn on his own land, the settler was not concerned about the subsequent destination of the fire or its possible ultimate consequences, with the result that his operations were a constant source of danger to the forests and adjacent settlers." 1


The 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission final report states that ‘…Fifty-two significant bushfires have been recorded in Victoria since 1851, two-thirds of them in the past sixty years…’ (Volume 1, page 2)

The Report also stated: ‘…On the basis of the evidence presented, the Commission concluded that Victoria has a range of characteristics that predispose it to bushfires generally and to the occasional ferocious bushfire in particular. There are few other locations in the world with similar characteristics…’ (Volume 1, page xxiv)

An introduction to fire management in Victoria -

1851 to 1926

February 6 - 'Black Thursday’: Fires cover a quarter of what is now Victoria - approximately 5 million hectares. Twelve lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle are recorded as lost.
The first Fire Legislation passed.
First Forest Bill brought before Parliament to create forest reserves, management powers etc. This Bill and subsequent ones (1881, 1887 and 1892) are never enacted.
First ‘Conservator of Forests’ appointed (an officer of the Lands Department).
First Forests Act passed. Comprehensive treatment of most ‘forest related’ matters - far reaching by previous standards.
State Forest Department formed under a new Minister of Forests.
Victorian School of Forestry at Creswick accepts first trainees.
Forests Commission established to administer the Act and manage the Department New Forests Act provides basis for the current one (1958). The Commission’s principles of establishment are:
  • the conservation, development and utilisation of the indigenous forests, based on sound forestry principles
  • the establishment of adequate plantations of exotic softwood plantations
  • the prosecution of essential research work concerning the natural products of the forests;and
  • the need for an effective fire prevention and fire suppression organisation
Forestry Fund established – allows the Forests Commission to keep half the income obtained from royalties etc. to re-invest in forest management.

A significant fire in the Otways burnt 24000ha and 100 homes were destroyed. (Source: Sawdust and Steam. A History of Sawmilling in the East Otway Ranges. 1850-2010. Norman Houghton. 2011)
Earliest recorded use of fire by a Government land manager to reduce fuel levels on public land.

Fireguards in place - see Instructions to Fireguards.
February – March. Including ’Black Sunday’ – February 14th - Forest fires burn across large areas of Gippsland throughout February and into early March. Sixty lives are lost and widespread damage occurs to farms, homes and forests.

See also: YouTube Video

The 1925/26 Fire Season: 426 fires, Total Area Burnt 395000 ha, comprising 193500 ha of Reserved Forest and 201500 ha of Crown Land. (Source: FCV Annual Report 1925/26)

The FCV takes on a key role in supporting Bush Fire Brigades.
Forest and Fire Responsibility in Victoria

A State Forests Department was established in Victoria in 1908. In 1918 the Forests Commission, Victoria (FCV) was formed to administer the relevant legislation and to manage the Department. From the outset a key requirement of the Department / Commission was to meet ‘…The need for an effective fire prevention and fire suppression organisation….’

Responsibility for the relevant legislation lay with the FCV until 1983. In that year the FCV was effectively incorporated into a new body, the Department of Conservation, Forests and Lands (CFL). That organisation’s successors in law have been the Departments of:

  • 1990: Conservation and Environment (DCE)
  • 1992: Conservation and Natural Resources (CNR)
  • 1996: Natural Resources and Environment (NRE)
  • 2002: Sustainability and Environment (DSE)
  • 2013: Environment and Primary Industries (DEPI)
  • 2015: Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP)
  • 2023: Energy, Environment and Climate Action (DEECA)
Note also:
  • that the Land Conservation Council, which was formed in 1971, was to play the key role in determing the uses of public land in Victoria from that time.
  • that the Government exited the plantation business in 1998, when the plantation business was sold to Hancock Natural Resources Group to form Hancock Victorian Plantations (HVP). For fire management purposes, HVP would become an Industry Brigade under CFA legislation.
  • that in 2004, VicForests, a government commercial entity, was established to manage commercial timber harvesting on public land.

1 The Bush Fire Brigades in Victoria, Australia - AV Galbraith (Empire Forestry Journal, Vol 16, No.1, July 1937)

See also:

Community Bushfire Connection


Gillespie, J., Wright, J., Calder, S.W., Leonard, M.G., and Williams, B. (1994). A Fraternity of Foresters – A History of the Victorian State Foresters Association. Jim Crow Press, Daylesford, Australia.150 pp.
Moulds, F.R, (1991). The Dynamic Forest – A History of Forestry and Forest Industries in Victoria. Lynedoch Publications. Richmond, Australia. 232 pp.
Parliament of Victoria (2010). Report of the 2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission. Volumes 1 – 3. Parliament of Victoria. 1141 pp.
Pyne, S.J. (1998). Burning Bush: A Fire History of Australia. University of Washington Press. 521 pp.
Pyne, S.J. (2006). The Still-Burning Bush. Scribe. 138 pp.
State Aircraft Unit, Victoria (2007). Some milestones in firefighting and forestry aviation in Victoria. SAU – Vic. 3 pp. (Article here)
Youl, R., Fry, B. and Hateley, R. (2010) Circumspice: One hundred years of forestry education centred on Creswick, Victoria. On-Demand Printers, Port Melbourne, Victoria. 278 pp.
Victorian Government – DSE (2010). History of helicopter rappel operations in Victoria. Victorian Government. 28 pp.