|Black Friday bushfires|
|Date(s)||13 January 1939|
|Cause||Heat wave, careless burning|
The Black Friday bushfires of 13 January 1939, in Victoria, Australia, were among the worst natural bushfires (wildfires) in the world. Almost 20,000 km² (4,942,000 acres, 2,000,000 ha) of land was burned, 71 people died, several towns were entirely obliterated and the Royal Commission that resulted from it led to major changes in forest management. Over 1,300 homes and 69 sawmills were burned, and 3,700 buildings were destroyed. It was calculated that three-quarters of the State of Victoria was directly or indirectly affected by the disaster. The Royal Commission noted that "it appeared the whole State was alight on Friday, 13 January 1939".
In the days preceding the fires, the state capital, Melbourne, experienced some of its hottest temperatures on record at the time: 43.8 °C (110.8 °F) on 8 January and 44.7 °C (112.5 °F) on 10 January. On 14 January, the day of the fires, temperatures reached 45.6 °C (114.1 °F), which stood as the hottest day officially recorded in Melbourne for the next 70 years. (Unofficial records show temperatures of around 47 °C (117 °F) were reported on the Black Thursday fires of 6 February 1851).
The summer of 1938–39 had been hot and dry, and several fires had broken out. By early January, fires were burning in a number of locations across the state. Then, on Friday 13 January, a strong northerly wind hit the state, causing several of the fires to combine into one massive front.
The most damage was felt in the mountain and alpine areas in the northeast and around the southwest coast. The Acheron, Tanjil and Thomson Valleys and the Grampians, were also hit. Five townships – Hill End, Narbethong, Nayook West, Noojee (apart from the Hotel), Woods Point – were completely destroyed and not all were rebuilt afterwards. The towns of Omeo, Pomonal, Warrandyte (though this is now a suburb of Melbourne, it was not in 1939) and Yarra Glen were also badly damaged.
Around the same time, mid January, bushfires burnt through the Adelaide Hills, precipitated by the same heatwave. Ash from the fires fell as far away as New Zealand. The fires came under control two days later, when rain fell on the night of Sunday the 15th.
Towns either damaged or completely destroyed included;
The subsequent Royal Commission, under Judge Leonard Edward Bishop Stretton (known as the Stretton Inquiry), attributed blame for the fires to careless burning, campfires, graziers, sawmillers and land clearing.
Prior to 13 January 1939, many fires were already burning. Some of the fires started as early as December 1938, but most of them started in the first week of January 1939. Some of these fires could not be extinguished. Others were left unattended, or as Judge Stretton wrote, the fires were allowed to burn “under control”, as it was falsely and dangerously called. Most of the fires Stretton declared, with almost biblical gravity, were lit by the "hand of man".
Stretton's Royal Commission has been described as one of the most significant inquiries in the history of Victorian public administration.
As a consequence of Judge Stretton's scathing report, the Forests Commission Victoria gained additional funding and took responsibility for fire protection on all public land including State forests, unoccupied Crown Lands and National Parks plus a buffer extending one mile beyond their boundaries on to private land and its responsibilities grew in one leap from 2.4 million to 6.5 million hectares. Stretton's recommendations officially sanctioned and encouraged the common bush practice of controlled burning to minimise future risks.
Its recommendations led to sweeping changes including stringent regulation of burning and fire safety measures for sawmills, grazing licensees and the general public, the compulsory construction of dugouts at forest sawmills, increasing the forest roads network and firebreaks, construction of forest dams, fire towers and RAAF aerial patrols linked by the Commissions radio network VL3AA to ground observers. The Commission's communication systems were regarded at the time to be more technicality advanced than the police and the military. These pioneering efforts were directed by Geoff Weste.
Victoria’s forests were devastated to an extent that was unprecedented within living memory and the impact of the 1939 bushfires dominated management thought and action for much of the next ten years. Salvage of fire-killed timber became an urgent and dominant task that was still consuming resources and effort of the Forests Commission a decade and a half later.
It was estimated that over 6 million cubic meters of timber needed to be salvaged. A massive task made more difficult by labour shortages caused by the Second World War. In fact, there was so much material that some of the logs were harvested and stockpiled in huge dumps in creek beds and covered with soil and treeferns to stop them from cracking only to be recovered many years later.
Further major fires later in the 1943-44 Victorian bushfires season and another Royal Commission by Judge Stretton was a key factor in the founding of the Country Fire Authority (CFA) for fire suppression on rural land. Prior to the creation of the CFA the Forests Commission had, to some extent, been supporting individual volunteer brigades which had formed across rural Victoria in the preceding decades.
The environmental effects from the fires continued for many years and some of the burnt dead trees still remain today. Large amounts of animal habitat were destroyed. In affected areas, the soil took decades to recover from the damage of the fires. In some areas, water supplies were contaminated for some years afterwards due to ash and debris washing into catchment areas.
Internationally, south-eastern Australia is considered one of the three most fire-prone landscapes on Earth, along with southern California and the southern Merranean. Major Victorian bushfires occurred on Black Thursday in 1851, where an estimated 5 million hectares were burnt, followed by another blaze on Red Tuesday in February 1891 in South Gippsland when about 260,000 hectares were burnt, 12 people died and more than 2,000 buildings were destroyed. The deadly pattern continued with more major fires on Black Sunday on 14 February 1926 sees the tally rise to sixty lives being lost and widespread damage to farms, homes and forests.
Considered in terms of both loss of property and loss of life the 1939 fires were one of the worst disasters, and certainly the worst bushfire event, to have occurred in Australia up to that time. Only the subsequent Ash Wednesday bushfires in 1983 and the Black Saturday bushfires in 2009 have resulted in more deaths. In terms of the total area burnt the Black Friday fires are the second largest, burning 2 million hectares, with the Black Thursday fires of 1851 having burnt an estimated 5 million hectares.
Putting aside large conflagrations of cities like the Great Fire of Meireki or the Great Fire of London, perhaps the world's worst bushfire was at Peshtigo in Wisconsin in 1871, which burnt nearly 1.2 million acres, destroyed twelve communities and killed between 1500-2500 people. Now largely forgotten, Peshtigo was overshadowed by the Great Fire of Chicago that occurred on the same day.
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