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bushfires in Australia

Climate and Victorian bushfire risk:

  • Australia has always been at risk of major, uncontrollable bushfires, but the intensity, extent and frequency of these fires increase with the frequency of catastrophic fire condition days increases with Australia's increasing temperatures since 1960.
  • below average rainfall during winter and spring does not allow the soil moisture to become fully replenished resulting in grasses curing early and forests becoming extraordinarily dry during the following summer.
  • Victorian annual rainfall is highly variable from a low of 367mm in 1967 to a high of 919mm in 1973, it is dependent upon:
    • a supply of moisture from the tropics which usually occurs in years of La Nina events and is reduced in years of El Nino events and/or positive Indian Ocean Dipole events
    • the moisture from the tropics must still rely on favourable air currents to bring it down to Victoria, and this concurrence of ideal events is unfortunately the exception rather than the rule.
    • thus Victoria remained in drought during the last 3 La Nina events and it is thought this may be due to changes in currents in the Indian Ocean perhaps partly due to lower temperatures over Asia due to increased levels of aerosols there.
    • the decade from mid-1930's to mid-1940's was particularly dry as has been 1996-2009
    • in contrast, high rainfall periods occurred in the 1950's and 1970's.
    • the 1st half of the 20th century was drier than the 2nd half of the 20th century.
    • currently, although we are in a long drought with record temperatures and record durations of dry periods (2009 is the driest start to a year on record), there is no evidence to suggest that this drought is not just part of the normal rainfall variation patterns for Victoria rather than a climate change effect - yet.
  • the next factor required to increase bushfire risk is hot dry northerly winds
    • these occur regularly during the summer, usually after a high pressure system passes and before a cold front arrives
    • in catastrophic fire danger days when temperatures exceed 40degC with hot dry winds, forest fires become weather-dependent and not fuel dependent and will burn through previously burnt forests hence past cool burns do NOT affect fire behaviour in these conditions
    • in Feb 2009, the winds were hotter than usual due to descending, dry middle atmosphere air which was warmed by compression in the denser air and brought strong winds of the middle atmosphere with it coming from the Indian Ocean towards Tasmania. This subsidence was caused by the unusually wet tropical conditions in the preceding weeks which was associated with ascending air forming clouds and rain in the tropics and this air then had to subside elsewhere to restore balance.
    • the arrival of the cold front tends to increase the lethality of bushfires by changing the wind direction suddenly and thus the direction of the bushfire.
    • the cold front is even more dangerous if it is a dry cold front not bringing rains to help quench the fires, as occurred in Feb 2009 fires.
  • the fuel factor
    • dry undergrowth adds fuel for a ground fire
    • bark on trees is an important contributor for a ground fire to then become elevated to a crown fire
    • strategic “slow burns” are designed to reduce both of the above
    • wet forests rarely burn and are low risk
    • fires travel fastest uphill and thus burn offs tend to target this component (but avoiding cliffs as vegetation helps prevent land falls) as well as creating a lower risk zone within several kilometres of population areas

Greenhouse gas emissions from bush fires in Australia

  • the annual greenhouse emissions in Australia from man's activities is around 530 million tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent
  • the long term average of emissions from bush fires in Australia was about 380m tonnes of CO2 per year with the far majority of this coming from savannah fires in far north Australia (for example, usually, only 5% come from NSW fires), and these reabsorb the released carbon when the savannah re-grows creating a neutral effect on net emissions.1)
  • in the late 2019 Qld and NSW fires, from Aug to Dec 2019, these contributed 55mtonnes and 195mtonnes (2.7m hectares burnt) respectively, but the final figure in Feb of all of Australia's bushfires covering 6m hectares hits 410megatonnes with a global annual average of 7500 megatonnes 2) and as these were forests, it will take decades for the re-growth of the forests to absorb the released CO2, and if the forests do not grow back to the same area due to deteriorating conditions then there will be a net CO2 emission from the fires.
  • in the Tasmanian fires of 2015, peat that was burned may take thousands of years to recover the carbon if the climatic conditions are suitable - and this is very unlikely given the rising temperatures

Major bushfires in south-east Australia:

21st century


  • Feb 2024:
    • 13th Feb fires in the Grampians
      • Mt Zero fire towards Dadswells Bridge and another destroyed Pomonal region with ~half the inhabitants of Pomonal having property burnt
      • 44 houses lost in these fires (another 16 houses destroyed due to same thunderstorms that passed to Gippsland)
    • 22nd Feb 2024:
      • Bayindeen / Mt Buangor / Mt Cole bushfire


  • after 3yrs of La Nina, Australia enters an El Nino event in Sept 2023 with a very warm and dry September resulting in Total Fire Ban days in NSW and unseasonably early bushfires in Gippsland in Victoria on 1st Oct: 3 major fires requiring preparation for evacuations: Briagolong, Walhalla, Lochsport grass fire but unexpected ongoing wet mild conditions in Victoria through to the end of the year resulted in no further major fires there.


  • Jan 2020: fires around Canberra, eastern NSW and new fires in Cape Conran region - almost all extinguished by mid Feb after a major rain event in NSW
  • the unprecedented, extensive bushfires affecting 5.8 million hectares (with the strongest pyrocumulonimbus outbreak occurred on 31 December 2019, with initial injection altitudes reaching as high as 16 km) caused an abrupt increase in global mean lower stratosphere temperatures which reached the highest temperatures since the early 1990s when Pinatubo erupted, and the aerosols resulted in prolonging the Antarctic ozone hole 3)


  • late Dec 2019: extensive bushfires from east of Lakes Entrance to Mallacoota, while southern coastal towns of NSW are encircled and threatened and Corryong and Kosciousko alpine region also affected as well as the Batlow district.
  • Dec 2019: bushfires in Adelaide Hills
  • Dec 2019: bushfires north of Orbost, Vic.
  • Nov-Dec 2019: extensive bushfires along northern NSW coastal regions and south to the Blue Mountains claim at least 873 homes by Xmas
  • Feb 2019: much of central and west Gippsland alpine forests north of Princes Hwy in Victoria affected by bushfires


  • Mar 2018: Tathra township in NSW severely damaged
  • Mar 2018: large area of rural south-western Victoria near Terang burnt including 26 homes



  • early Feb 2014 heatwave, major fires:
    • far east Gippsland
    • Moe coal mines
    • fast moving grassfire from Mickleham Rd in Melbourne's nth suburbs travelled north towards Pyalong with many houses lost but no lives, and with 40km firefront
    • extensive grassfire southeast of New Gisborne
  • mid-Jan heatwave, major bushfires:
    • northern parts Grampians in the Mount Difficult Range, Silverband Falls; Halls Gap evacuated
    • far east Gippsland


  • early Jan:
    • one of the hottest heatwaves on record across the whole of Australia
    • major bushfires:
      • SE Tasmania including the town of Dunalley cutting off the road to Port Arthur
      • NSW including the Warrumbungles, Coonabarabran region and the Siding Spring Observatory
      • SW Victoria pine forest plantations near Nelson
      • Gippsland in Victoria - Macalister River region to Licola (a similar path to the 1965 fire) including around the town of Glenmaggie, and threatening the Thomson Catchment which feeds Melbourne's water supply
      • west aspects of the Grampians
      • Sth Australia including Bundaleer Forest
  • October 2013:
    • Blue Mountains, NSW: large area north of line from Lithgow to Bilpin; Yellomundee Regional Park, Yellow Rock, Winmalee; Mount Victoria;


  • Feb: Tostaree - Princes Highway fire, burning between Nowa Nowa and Orbost closed the Princes Hway and cut power to all of east Gippsland


  • Feb 7th/8th:
    • “Black Saturday”
    • following a record 3 days straight of temperatures above 43degC, Victoria suffered its most ferocious and tragic bushfires which suddenly roared to life after midday on Melbourne's hottest day on record when temperatures reached 46.4 degC in the CBD and 47.9deg C at nearby Avalon, while winds of 90-100kph fanned the flames forcing fires to traverse 1.5km in 5min leaving last minute escape impossible for many.
    • over 2000 homes were lost, 173 people died and millions of animals were killed.
    • Marysville, Kinglake, and Strathewen townships were devastated.
    • see my blog here.
    • followed Victoria's 15th lowest annual rainfall on record of 504mm in 2008 and 12 years drought
    • 6 of the 11 most catastrophic Black Saturday bushfires were started by high voltage electric powerlines causing all but 14 of the 173 deaths
  • Nov 2009: 700 hectare blaze near Mallacoota in the Croajingalong NP


  • December: massive fires devastate much of Victoria's eastern alpine region
    • On 1 December 2006, over 70 fires were caused by lightening strikes.
      Many of these fires eventually merged to become the Great Divide Complex, which lasted 69 days and burnt approximately 1,048,000 hectares of public and private land.
  • January: fires devastate Victoria's Grampians region - 100,000ha, killing 50,000 sheep and 2 people


  • January: lightning strikes start 87 bushfires in Victoria's eastern alpine region (Mt Buffalo, Bright and Omeo regions) which raged for 70 days and burnt 1.3 million hectares of land (~5% of Victoria or 15% of public land) but despite a 800km fire front with 1.3 million ha burnt, fortunately only 1 person died and 41 homes lost in Victoria (although Canberra in the ACT was severely affected).


  • December: 2 fires caused by lightning, in Big Desert Wilderness Park and Wyperfeld Park join up and burn 181,400ha.

20th century


  • December 2: 5 volunteer fire fighters die when their tanker is engulfed in fire near Linton.


  • New Year's Eve: camp fire presumably is cause of fire that burnt 32,000ha incl. 22,000ha of Victoria's Alpine National Park.
  • January 21: 41 houses lost in Victorian fires at Dandenong, Arthur's Seat, Eildon, Gippsland & Creswick.


  • January 14: 3 die, 180 houses lost in Victorian fires at Maryborough, Avoca & Little River.


  • February 16: after a long drought, a massive dust storm which engulfs Melbourne, the “Ash Wednesday” bush fires and decimates Victorian and Sth Australian rural areas, especially Mt Macedon, East Trentham, Dandenongs (esp. Cockatoo), Warburton, Branxholme, Monivae and Otway regions. 47 killed in Victoria and another 28 killed in Sth. Aust. with a total of 2000 houses lost.
    • fire day temp. reached max. 43degC
  • February 1: 50 houses lost in fires near summit of Mt Macedon.
  • followed Victoria's 2nd lowest annual rainfall on record of 362mm in 1982
  • see here


  • Muckleford forest near Castlemaine


  • December 28: lightning starts fires in the Sunset Country and the Big Desert burning 119,000ha.
  • 45,000ha bushfire of the Nadgee State Forest (south of Eden) including the Wallagaraugh Forest Drive


  • February 12: 4 die and 116 houses lost in grassland fires in Victoria's Western District including the township of Streatham.
  • “Bushfires swept through western Victoria to the SA border. The worst-hit area was the historic township of Streatham which was burned to the ground in minutes leaving 5 men dead and 7 people suffering heart attacks. Eighty-one homes, the community hall, post office and shops were also destroyed.”


  • December 14th: 12 days of fires burn 7400ha at Mt Buffalo.


  • January 8th: 23 killed and 230 homes lost in 230 bushfires break out, many on the urban fringe including the Lara fire which killed 18 people who left their cars on the Princes Highway trying to out-run the fire front. Affected areas included Lara, Daylesford, Dulgana, Yea, Darraweit, Kangaroo Flat & Korongvale.


  • February 19th: 53 houses lost in the Dandenongs around The Basin and Upwey.


  • February 21: 300,000ha of Gippsland forest burnt over 3weeks.
  • January 17th: 7 die near Longwood in Victoria.


  • January 14th: 30 die and 450 homes lost in areas around northern and eastern Melbourne.
  • Fires in the Dandenong Ranges and on the outskirts of Melbourne caused thirty three fatalities and destroyed over 450 houses. Areas severely affected include The Basin, Christmas Hills, Kinglake, St Andrews, Hurstbridge, Warrandyte and Mitcham.


  • several die in fires near Benalla
  • Corryong, Walwa
  • Nadgee State Forest (south of Eden) and region around Bega, NSW
  • Jan 29th: fire burned to within 2 miles of Mallacoota township; 9-mile wide front near Bellbird (near Orbost) cuts the Princes Hway in east Gippsland


  • January - Feb:
    • 32 killed in a severe bushfire season which destroyed 700 homes including 50 in beachside suburbs Beaumaris and Mentone as well as 500 homes and vast stock losses in Victoria's Western District - Four or more grass fires near Hamilton, Dunkeld, Skipton and Lake Bolac burnt approximately 440,000 hectares in eight hours.



  • January 13th:
    • after a long drought, on Jan 13th, “Black Friday” - 71 killed in a devastating bushfire affecting a large area of eastern Victoria and destroying the township of Narbethong. Other areas hit were Warrandyte, Yarra Glen and Victorian Alps.
    • Subsequently the Country Fire Authority (CFA) was formed.
    • fire day temp. reached record max. 45.6degC
    • followed Victoria's 5th lowest annual rainfall on record of 412mm in 1938
    • Over 1,000 homes were burnt, and the townships of Narbethong, Noojee, Woods Point, Nayook West and Hill End were destroyed. The townships of Warrandyte, Yarra Glen, Omeo and Pomonal were badly damaged. Intense fires burned on the urban fringe of Melbourne in the Yarra Ranges east of Melbourne - affected towns including Toolangi, Warburton and Thomson Valley. The Alpine towns of Bright, Cudgewa and Corryong were also affected, as were vast areas in the west of the state, in particular Portland, the Otway Ranges and the Grampians. The bushfires also affected the Black Range, Rubicon, Acheron, Noojee, Tanjil Bren, Hill End, Woods Point, Matlock, Erica, Omeo, Toombullup and the Black Forest.
    • Large areas of state forest, containing giant stands of Mountain Ash and other valuable timbers, were killed. Approximately 575,000 hectares of reserved forest, and 780,000 hectares of forested Crown Land were burnt.
    • see here


  • 9 die in summer fires in Gippsland forests.
  • 206, 000 Ha burnt from 307 fires.



  • extensive fires occurred in the Otway Ranges


  • fires burnt more than 100,000 hectares


  • Fires extended from Gippsland to the Grampians

19th century


  • February 1st: “Red Tuesday” - 12 die and 2000 buildings razed in Victorian fires.
  • Fires burnt 260,000 hectares in South Gippsland.


  • 27th Feb “Black Monday”
  • From Geelong to Ballarat was nearly a line of fire, and numerous houses, fences, and crops were either burnt up or with difficulty saved. In the country round Daylesford similar disasters occurred.


  • February 6th: “Black Thursday” - 12 die and a million sheep lost in fires over a quarter of what is now Victoria affecting mainly Westernport to the Wimmera.
    • 25% of Victoria's emerging colony burned
    • The areas affected include Portland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera and Dandenong districts.
    • Approximately 12 lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost.
history/h_aust_bushfires.txt · Last modified: 2024/02/24 17:32 by gary1

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