Forest Fire History - A Timeline
Mike Leonard (bio)
Original prepared in 2010 by M. Leonard; last minor update 11/’18
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)
- 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
- in late 1938, fires burn 1.5 to 2 million hectares. The fires come to a head on January 13th, 1939 (Black Friday) causing 71 fatalities (including several Forests Commission officers). They destroy more than 650 buildings, and obliterate whole townships
- fires affect almost every section of Victoria. Areas hardest hit include Noojee, Woods Point, Omeo, Narbethong, Warrandyte and Yarra Glen. Other areas affected include Warburton, Erica, Rubicon, Dromana, Mansfield, the Otway Ranges and the Grampian Ranges;
- the most destructive fires since 1851
Stretton Royal Commission:
- “These fires were lit by the hand of man”. The findings of the Royal Commission held following 1939 fires are to be highly significant in increasing fire awareness and prevention throughout Australia
- the Royal Commission dramatically changes non-metropolitan fire service provisions in Victoria and leads to the creation of Country Fire Authority (CFA)
- Forests Act 1939 extends the Forests Commission’s fire protection responsibilities to national parks, other public lands and to lands within 1.5 km. of both State forests and national parks
Ash Wednesday, 16th February - Victoria experiences record levels of fire danger. Significant fires at East Trentham-Macedon, Deans March-Lorne, Upper Beaconsfield, Cockatoo, Warburton and Framlingham result in the loss of 47 lives 2,500 buildings and 33,000 head of stock.
In accordance with the requirements of the Code the document is subsequently reviewed and a Revision No. 1 is released in early 2006. A further revision is released in mid-2012, in the wake of Black Saturday.
Elvis arrives - As part of the continuing development of aerial fire- fighting operations an Erikson Aircrane heavy-lift helicopter (nick-named ’Elvis‘) is contracted for fire-fighting duties by NRE / CFA. It can accurately deliver large loads (around 9000 litres) of water or retardant.
Fireweb Developed - Using State government initiative funding NRE dramatically upgrades the IT platform that underpins its fire management functions. Fireweb provides a single source and repository of fire related information using features that have subsequently been adapted for use in many parts of the world.
As with the 2003 fires assistance is again received from interstate and overseas crews.
Early that afternoon a fire is reported in open country to the east of Melbourne, in Gippsland, again being driven, under strong north winds, towards forested hills
Around 3 PM a fire is reported to the north-east of Melbourne (near Murrindindi) again in farmland but close to forest. Initially arriving crews report severe fire behaviour, with flames 20 metres high and an estimated rate of spread of 8 kilometres per hour. ‘Spotting’ was estimated at 5 kilometres (post-fire analysis indicates this was an under-estimate — the likely spread of the fire was around 12 kilometres per hour with spotting to 22 kilometres).
A little after midday a strong, gusty, south-westerly wind change enters the State dropping temperatures and increasing relative humidity. No shower activity is associated with the change. Many locations have now reported, if not their hottest day on record, then their hottest for February. Wind gusts to 115 kilometres per hour are reported in the wake of the change. The strong and gusty south-westerly wind change moves eastward at a rate of about 30 kilometres per hour. Fire danger ratings remains well into the ‘Extreme’ category ahead of the wind change, and in central parts of the State these do not drop below ‘Extreme’ until up to an hour after the change.
By the time the fires that broke out on February 7th have been contained 173 people have been killed, around 78 communities have been directly impacted upon and several entire towns have been irrevocably affected. More than 2000 homes and sixty-one business premises have been destroyed, and 430,000 hectares of land have been burnt. The fires are Australia’s deadliest peace-time disaster.
In the weeks following the tragedy the State government establishes a Royal Commission of Inquiry that is required to produce an interim report by 17 August 2009, and a final report by 31 July 2010.
During the life of the Inquiry the Commission receives over 1700 written submissions, and examines some 434 witnesses and a range of international specialists over 155 days.
A Committee of the Australian Senate releases a report on the Incidence and severity of bushfires across Australia.
State parliament passes a Fire Services Commissioner Act 2010 to provide for the appointment, powers, and functions of a Fire Services Commissioner, and amends Victoria’s emergency management arrangements to create a State Fire Controller to response to major fires.
An Inquiry, by the State’s Emergency Services Commissioner, is launched into the management of the first two 72 hours of the Harrietville fire after widespread local criticism and very high aircraft-related costs being borne.
Public Land Fire Responsibility in Victoria – a Brief Summary
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 Forests Commission 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)
Sources for this article include:
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.