On 24 October 2019, strong northerly winds combined with existing dry conditions and high temperatures to create dangerous bushfire weather in South Australia (SA). Several fires broke out across the state, including one at Wongulla in the Murraylands where several firefighters were injured.
Catastrophic fire conditions were forecast across the state for 20 November and the Country Fire Service (CFS) declared a state-wide total fire ban. A fire threatened Yorketown on the Yorke Peninsula that day before a wind change pushed the fire dangerously close to the township of Edithburgh. The fire destroyed seven homes and burned more than 5,000 hectares (ha).
Dangerous fire weather conditions continued from spring into summer. In December, strong winds, low humidity and high temperatures on several days again combined to create dangerous bushfire conditions, including some areas with catastrophic fire danger ratings. Nearly all of SA recorded its highest ever accumulated forest fire danger index for December.
On 20 December, catastrophic fire conditions were forecast as the state sweltered though its fourth day of extreme heat. Temperatures in the west of the state reached 49.9°C, several other sites exceeded 45°C, and Adelaide reached 43.9°C.
More than 200 bushfires burned across the state that day, including a major fire at Cudlee Creek in the Adelaide Hills that spread rapidly, threatening the townships of Mount Pleasant, Springton, Palmer, Cudlee Creek, Mount Torrens, Harrogate, Inglewood, Gumeracha, Lobethal and Woodside. Twenty-seven roadblocks were set up by SA Police to manage traffic entering threatened areas, and a Large Air Tanker from New South Wales (NSW), called in to assist firefighters, was grounded due to high winds.
Over the next few days, the fire burned 23,000 ha before being brought under control. An elderly man died in his home during the fire, and 84 homes were destroyed as well as over 400 outbuildings and 292 vehicles.
More than 40,000 ha were burned by fires that started that day and more than 1,500 firefighters responded; 31 firefighters and two police officers were injured. A 24-year-old man from Queensland (QLD) died in a car crash that started a fire in the Murraylands.
Kangaroo Island also experienced multiple dry lightning strikes on 20 December, sparking fires that took 11 days to contain. Several firefighting aircraft were deployed to assist hundreds of firefighters battling the blazes. The island’s fire crews were still fighting these fires when more lightning strikes caused several more fires that merged to create the Ravine fire complex on 30 December. This fire burned through inaccessible parts of a wilderness park in the north-west of the island before strong northerly winds on 3 January caused the fire to spread to the island’s south coast before a wind shift pushed it east.
The Kangaroo Island fires burned 211,500 ha including one of SA’s most important ecological sites, Flinders Chase National Park, home to the endangered and endemic Kangaroo Island dunnart and the glossy black cockatoo. An estimated 25,000 koalas were killed too, with the habitats of numerous other animals destroyed.
The fires on Kangaroo Island killed two people who were trapped in their car, destroyed 56 homes and damaged hundreds of other buildings including a large eco-tourism facility. Twenty-three firefighters were injured battling the island’s fires, and two CFS fire trucks were damaged.
From 1 November 2019 onwards, the Australian and SA governments made a wide range of disaster recovery funding available for individuals, non-profits and businesses financially impacted by the bushfires. Eleven local government areas were listed as eligible for assistance measures that included personal hardship and distress assistance, personal and financial counselling, counter disaster operations, reconstruction of essential public assets, and concessional interest rate loans for small businesses, primary producers and non-profit organisations.
On 8 November and following multiple bushfires across SA, NSW, QLD and Victoria, the Insurance Council of Australia declared the fires a catastrophe, enabling related insurance claims to be processed more rapidly. As of 28 May 2020, the estimated insured value of the national bushfire catastrophe was $2.32 billion from 38,181 claims. SA accounted for 8 per cent of the losses (approximately $186 million from 3,054 claims).
On 28 January, the SA Premier announced an independent review of the 2019–20 SA bushfire season, with a focus on the Cudlee Creek and Kangaroo Island bushfires. The SA Government also launched the SA Bushfire Appeal to raise funds for people directly affected by the Cudlee Creek and Kangaroo Island bushfires.