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Australia is widely regarded as the most fire-prone country in the world.

Fire has shaped Australia’s landscape for millions of years. Some Australian flora and fauna have evolved to coexist with bushfires, and fire forms an integral part of its regeneration cycle in the case of a eucalypt forest. Aboriginal people used fire as a tool.

Image: Adam Stevenson
Image: Geoff Winkler

Natural disasters such as bushfires, however, not only bring death and destruction but also bring out the best in human nature. Numerous tales of bravery, selflessness and compassion have come out of the tragedy. Volunteer firefighters put their lives on the line; community groups feed and house the displaced; people all around Australia donate generously to fund-raising appeals.

Over 180 fires swept across Victoria and South Australia. High temperatures, intense winds, and low summer rainfall caused a high fire danger in Victoria’s eucalypt forests. Many lives, property, stock and other assets were lost.

 

Within twelve hours, more than 180 fires fanned by hot winds up to 110 km/h caused widespread destruction across Victoria and South Australia. Years of severe drought and extreme weather combined to create one of Australia’s worst fire days in a century.

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Before Ash Wednesday, most of Victoria had experienced a drought. Rainfall over winter and spring was low, and summer rainfall for Victoria was up to 75 percent less than in previous years. Low rainfall meant less moisture in the soil, and water supplies in many places were almost dry. In addition, the moisture in the air, known as relative humidity, was also low.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An ominous sign of things to come occurred on the afternoon of 8 February when a giant dust storm enveloped Melbourne. The dust cloud was over 300 metres high and 500 kilometres long. It was composed of an estimated 50,000 tonnes of topsoil from the drought-ravaged Wimmera and Mallee areas of north-west Victoria. Leading a dry, cool change and preceded by record temperatures, the dust storm cut visibility in Melbourne to 100 metres, creating near darkness for almost an hour.

Dust storm across Melbourne
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Wednesday, 16 February, dawned as another unrelentingly hot, dry day. Complex weather conditions early in the day did not signify how the day would develop.

The most disastrous factor in the Ash Wednesday fires occurred just before nightfall when a fierce and dry wind change swept across South Australia and Victoria. This abruptly changed the direction and dramatically increased the intensity of the fires. The long corridors of flame that had been driven all day by the strong northerly were suddenly hit by gale-force south-westerly winds and merged to become enormous fire fronts, many kilometres wide. Most of the losses of life and property occurred in the hour following the wind change.

Locally, fire broke out at approximately 3.00 pm at Deans Marsh and moved toward Lorne and eventually onto the ridges above the town. The fire then moved down to the sand dunes, where many took refuge in the sea.

 

The blaze continued to burn towards Aireys Inlet, where walls of flame and an immense firestorm hit fibro houses. Moving at extraordinary speed, the fire then moved through Anglesea; homes were lost, but the central part of town was saved. The fire was so intense that firefighters were forced to abandon all control efforts and let it burn until it reached the ocean, destroying everything in its path. Sadly the firefighters could merely sit back and watch what was happening. Residents were forced down to the water edge of beaches in the areas to escape the flames.

Torquay Fire Brigade ……….

Ash Wednesday survivors Cecil and Doris Armistead are living proof of using wisdom when caught in a bushfire. Along with the three CFA men, Cecil used his experience as a firefighter while stranded in their car for hours in the middle of the Ash Wednesday holocaust. Keeping calm was a critical factor in their survival.

The CFA crew had deliberately positioned their truck to protect the Armistead’s car as much as possible. The Armistead’s had fled from their Deans Marsh home with only a few minutes to evacuate. Captain Bob O’Neil, Geoff Cairns, and Mark Tomkins were on the Torquay truck.

After the back window in the CFA truck broke, the crew decided to jump into a ditch in front of the truck just before the interior and truck was engulfed by fire. Bob O’Neil noticed a small dam that was just inside the fence. Clutching their blankets, they decided to make a dash for it, lying in the few inches of water for the next hour protected by their blankets.

From left firemen Mark Tomkins, Bob O'Neil and Geoff Cairns

A study was conducted into the 32 fatalities (excluding firefighters) that occurred in Victoria. It revealed that 25 were outside their homes, several of whom died in vehicles while attempting to escape the inferno. In addition, it was found that delaying evacuation until the last minute was a common failing.

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The morning light revealed the devastation of Aireys Inlet, Anglesea and Lorne, all resembling barren moonscapes.

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At Eastern View before the wind change, taken from a CFA truck by Tim Fitzgerald. Source Forest Fire Management Victoria
At Eastern View before the wind change, taken from a CFA truck by Tim Fitzgerald. Source Forest Fire Management Victoria
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At Eastern View before the wind change, taken from a CFA truck by Tim Fitzgerald. Source Forest Fire Management Victoria
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RECOVERY

Image Richard Greenhough
Image Richard Greenhough
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EPILOGUE

As we mourn the terrible loss of life among our unknown neighbours in fires, we cannot afford the luxury of pretending we don’t know why or how it happened.

Des Colquhoun, SA Advertiser editor-in-chief, wrote after Ash Wednesday: Bushfires are as much part of this country as redgums and kangaroos. Australia is not a bland rock that can be tamed by building three-bedroom bungalows and bitumen roads on it. As long as the inscrutable outback survives, as long as the sun blazes and cruel winds blow hot, and as long as we live among our delectable eucalypts, we shall be threatened by fire.

Fires are as Australian as Australia and are one of the invincible terrors that give our capricious country its unique personality. They are a reminder that even in the 20th century, this country demands endurance, heroism, and compassion from those she designs to nurture and to terrorise, sometimes mortally.

We cannot hope to live without fires. But, dear god, in the name of humanity, we must somehow learn to live with them