A Brief History of Bushfires in Victoria, Australia Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

A Brief History of Bushfires in Victoria, Australia

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In Australia country, images of 'Ash Wednesday' and other such tragedies are burned into the collective memory of a nation in constant struggle with the elements.

Bushfires devastated Victoria's bushlands long before white settlement but the earliest recorded bushfire was in 1851, climaxing on 6 February or 'Black Thursday'. By 11am that day the temperature had soared to 47 degrees celsius in the shade, conditions which saw the bush burn from Barwon Heads to Mount Gambier, South Australia, claiming at least 10 lives.

Since 'Black Thursday' at least 300 Victorians have died at the hand of bushfires. The grim list reads like an honour role:

'Red Tuesday' - 20 January, 1898: towns were razed and several people killed as fires swept across the Otway Ranges and south and west Gippsland.

'Black Sunday' - 13 February, 1926: fires devastated the central highlands of Victoria claiming 31 lives.

'Black Friday' - 13 January, 1939: with rivers at their lowest levels for 80 years and humidity at eight per cent, 71 lives were lost to fires and the town of Noojee destroyed.

'Ash Wednesday' - 16 February, 1983: fires burned from the Dandenongs to the Otway Ranges and on to the Adelaide Hills. Forty-seven Victorians were among the 73 dead, including six firefighters who perished after their truck was engulfed in flames. At Macedon, seven people lost their lives as flames raced to within metres of the town's edge. Mt Macedon's white cross, scarred but standing, remained on an otherwise barren mountain top as a stark reminder of the devastation.

The pain of 'Ash Wednesday' was brought home to all Australians as South Australian radio host Murray Nicoll described his own house burning down during a live-to-air report.

The size of those fires was surpassed in January 1985 as at least 12 bushfires and 240 minor blazes swept across Victoria. Six people were killed and 66 injured in blazes at Maryborough, Avoca and Little River. The fire destroyed 182 homes, 400 farms and 46,000 livestock.

Before the death of five volunteer firemen at Linton in December 1998, Victoria's last bushfire deaths had occurred in January 1997 when fires raged across the Dandenong Ranges, Creswick, Heathcote, Teddywaddy and Goughs Bay. A young couple and a middle-aged woman died after taking refuge from the flames in a home on Seabreeze Avenue, Ferny Creek. At the height of this emergency 10 major fires ringed Melbourne with more than 1500 firefighters battling flames - 41 houses and one CFA fire truck were destroyed.

Victoria is not alone. In this wide brown land, nowhere has been spared the horror of bushfires.

During the 'Ash Wednesday' fires 28 people died in the Adelaide Hills, and 62 lives were lost during Tasmania's 1967 fires as 80 km/h winds swept flames down the Mount Wellington slopes to within two kilometers of Hobart's centre.

More recently, three NSW firefighters were killed while fighting a blaze in Lithgow last December. A month later a fourth died when his crew of eight was trapped after the wind turned during backburning.

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