Bushfire: the “Ash Wednesday” tragedy

Drought was not the only consequence of the 1982-1983 El Niño. Equally devastating were the bushfires.

The first major bushfire occurred on 25th November, 1982 and was followed by a series of large fires on 3rd and 13th December, 1982, and on 8th January and 1st February, 1983.  By 16th February, Victoria had experienced many very dry, hot days.  February 1983 was one of the hottest and driest Februarys on record.  Large areas of land that would usually have been green and lush were dry due to the extended drought period.  Strong winds lifted 200,000 tonnes of dried soil from the ground and created a huge dust storm across southern Australia on 9 February 1983.  The dust was then combined with the smoke from burning fires and reduced visibility, making fire fighting extremely difficult. The dust cloud was so large and thick it blocked out the sun in Melbourne and gave people little or no warning of an approaching bushfire.

Figure 1:  A massive dust storm over Melbourne in February 1983 (Source: Australian Bureau of Meteorology)

The extremely hot and dry weather that had been experienced towards the end of 1982 had given fire-fighters early warning of what might lie ahead for the summer bushfire season.  On this basis Fire fighting agencies had employed extra staff and organised for additional equipment and aircraft to be ready for fire fighting over the summer.

On the particular morning of Ash Wednesday - the 16th of February, 1983 - a front of cold air moved into the Great Australian Bight off the coast of South Australia.  The front caused the hot air in the centre of Australia to be drawn southwards, creating a hot, dry northerly wind over Victoria.  Temperatures in many places rose to over 40 degrees Celsius and the air moisture dropped to below 15% (this is extremely dry).  The average humidity on a summer’s day in Melbourne is usually approximately 43%.  Many bushfires were reported in the early to middle afternoon and were well established and out-of-control by the hottest and driest part of the day.

Towards the late afternoon, the front moved inland and the northerly winds became much stronger and the fires were being pushed in a southerly direction which created long, narrow fires.  These fires had long fronts and were very hard to control or even fight.  Many smaller spot fires, caused by burning material blown ahead of the main fire developed and in many cases spread quickly joining to form a large fire ahead of the main fire.  This made the bushfires more severe, and made it difficult for fire-fighters to control the fires.  In the early evening a wind change moved through south-west Victoria which was disastrous, as the westerly winds caused the fires to change direction and size.  Before the wind change, the fires had been relatively long and thin, with a narrow front. After the wind change, the long side of the fire then became the front of the fire, burning across a much wider area. Most of the loss of life (75 in total for the day) and property occurred in the hour following this wind change.

The following photos show some of the destruction from these fires that caused such widespread destruction in such a short amount of time.

Figure 2:  A burnt truck (Source: Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment)

Figure 3:  Driveways with no houses (Source: Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment)  

Figure 4:  Destroyed property (Source: Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment)

Figure 5:  Nothing left (Source: Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment)