Between 18 and 21 November 2019, many high temperature records were set across southern Australia and followed very much warmer than average and drier than average conditions through most of the year. Victoria’s (VIC) bushfire season started in earnest on 21 November when a total fire ban was declared for the entire state and code red (catastrophic) fire danger conditions were forecast for the state’s west. In Northern Country and the Mallee, 221 schools and early learning centres were closed as a precaution. Elsewhere, several national parks and state forests were also closed, before lightning ignited a series of fires in East Gippsland, initially endangering the communities of Buchan, Buchan South and Sunny Point.
Storm activity increased during the day, with the VIC State Emergency Service (SES) receiving 2,042 requests for assistance, primarily for fallen trees and building damage. The storms also caused power outages, with a peak of approximately 130,000 households without power.
One hundred and fifty fires started in Victoria that day, burning 326,000 hectares (ha). By day’s end, around 60 fires remained active, including a large fire in the state’s north near Shepparton, three large fires in East Gippsland, and a fastmoving grass fire at Mount Glasgow, north of Ballarat. By 25 November, two of the East Gippsland fires, near Bruthen and Gelantipy, had grown to 1,750 ha and 600 ha respectively, while in the north-east of the state, a 300 ha fire was burning in the Mount Bogong area.
On 20 December, another total fire ban was declared for Victoria and a new December maximum temperature record of 47.9C was set at Hopetoun and Horsham. One hundred and ten new fires broke out that day; a fire near Marthavale grew rapidly, endangering the communities of Tambo Crossing, Ensay and others. The Great Alpine Road was closed between Ensay and Bruthen and by next morning, the fire had caused power and mobile phone outages north of Ensay and from Bruthen to Omeo. Over the following days, several smaller fires began to combine, creating large fires that threatened several communities and critical infrastructure.
Due to predictions of worsening fire conditions, VIC authorities broadcast warnings to residents and visitors to leave high risk areas in a 15,000 square kilometre area stretching from Bairnsdale to Cann River and the New South Wales (NSW) border. More than 60,000 people are estimated to have evacuated the East Gippsland and Hume regions as a result.
On 30 December, another state-wide total fire ban was declared as multiple new fires started from dry lightning in the Grampians, Hume and Gippsland regions. Three fires in East Gippsland with a combined area of more than 130,000 ha remained active; some fires burned with sufficient intensity to create pyrocumulonimbus clouds that generated local thunder and lightning. The road network was significantly impacted by these fires and access was cut to a number of communities, sometimes for several days. A Forest Fire Management Victoria (FFMV) contractor died in a vehicle rollover.
Early in the morning on New Year’s Eve, the Banana Track fire reached the coastal town of Mallacoota in the state’s far east. Several thousand people were isolated in the town and more than 60 homes were destroyed. Escape routes were cut off and an estimated 4,000 people gathered on the town’s foreshore, protected by the local Country Fire Authority (CFA) brigade, three CFA strike teams, FFMV firefighters and VIC Police personnel.
Seven emergency warnings were in place across East Gippsland for more than 80 communities that day. A fire approached the coastal town of Lakes Entrance and an emergency warning was issued for an estimated 30,000 residents and holidaymakers there and in surrounding areas. Many people heeded the warnings and evacuated.
For December, record warmth across Australia had been accompanied by record low rainfall over eastern Australia. The monthly accumulated forest fire danger index (FFDI) for December was the highest on record over most of the country, and for Australia as a whole, December FFDI was the highest on record for any month. On 30 and 31 December, FFDI values were highest on record for December over areas of south-eastern Australia, including regions of significant fire activity in East Gippsland. By the end of December, fires had burnt 400,000 ha across the state, more than 230,000 ha in East Gippsland, and many communities remained isolated, without power or telecommunications.
On 1 January 2020 there were unconfirmed reports of property and infrastructure losses in several communities, including Mallacoota, Genoa, Reedy Flat, Buchan, Bruthen, Sarsfield, and Gelantipy. The Princes Highway east of Bairnsdale was closed in several places, isolating many communities.
On the evening of 2 January with an estimated 50 fires still burning in the state, the VIC Premier declared a state of disaster for the shires of East Gippsland, Mansfield, Wangaratta Rural, Wellington, Towong and Alpine, and the alpine resorts of Mount Buller, Mount Hotham, Falls Creek and Mount Stirling. People were again warned to leave high risk areas ahead of predicted worsening conditions.
On 3 January, fourteen emergency warnings were issued in fire-affected areas and nearly 2,000 people were evacuated from Mallacoota by air and sea, part of the largest-ever maritime evacuation of Australian citizens following a natural disaster. Evacuations were carried out by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) supported by international defence partners and other agencies. Forty-one firefighters from the United States arrived to support firefighting operations, and a FFMV firefighter died in a two-vehicle collision.
The following day, 66 more emergency warnings were issued as community relief centres continued to operate in Bairnsdale, Sale, Morwell, Wangaratta, Corryong, Tallangatta and Wodonga.
On 9 January, 220,000 emergency alert SMS messages were sent to people in East Gippsland and the state’s north-east encouraging them to move to safer locations. On 10 January, a further 28 emergency warnings were issued. The following day, a FFMV firefighter was killed by a falling tree.
Despite milder conditions, on 13 January two emergency warnings were issued, one for a fire about eight kilometres east of Abbeyard and the other for a fire in East Gippsland affecting Tamboon, Tamboon South and Furnel. On 14 January, VIC recorded the worst air quality in the world as smoke from the East Gippsland fires spread and authorities warned vulnerable groups to stay indoors.
In mid-January, a multi-agency roads access taskforce consisting of fire agencies, ADF and Department of Transport representatives was established to coordinate efforts to reopen roads to isolated communities and enable power and telecommunications to be restored.
Operations to return residents to Mallacoota commenced on 19 January, with eight air missions flown that day. By the time widespread rain fell in VIC on 20 and 22 January, bushfires had burnt more than 1.5 million ha, mainly in the state’s east and north-east. While the rain, humidity and cooler temperatures brought welcome relief to firefighters, fire affected catchments in East Gippsland and the north-east were put on flood watch. Firefighters were withdrawn from some areas due to fears strong winds and flash flooding could topple trees, create landslides and block roads in areas damaged by fire. Fire-affected areas in Gippsland received between 20 millimetres (mm) and 60 mm of rain, and up to 40 mm was recorded in the state’s north-east.
On 30 and 31 January, with several uncontrolled bushfires still burning, further hot weather again brought high fire danger. An emergency warning was issued for Bendoc and nearby communities on 30 January.
On 4 February, the Princes Highway was re-opened from Orbost to the NSW border, although with reduced speed limits in some areas. The Mallacoota-Genoa Road was re-opened and Mallacoota reconnected to the main power grid on 8 February.
By mid-February, the Snowy Complex fire in the far east of the state was the only major fire still burning. That fire, which had burned 663,000 ha, was declared contained on 27 February.
The 2019–20 VIC bushfires caused the loss of five lives and destroyed more than 300 homes and 6,632 head of stock. The fires burned more than 1.5 million ha of public and private land, including 1.39 million ha of forests and parks, plantations and native timber assets, critical animal habitats and water catchments.
A preliminary evaluation of the health burden of the VIC bushfires estimated that bushfire smoke was associated with 120 excess deaths, 331 hospitalisations for cardiovascular problems, 585 hospitalisations for respiratory problems and 401 emergency department presentations for asthma.
A range of joint Australian and VIC government disaster relief measures and payments were made available in 18 VIC local government areas affected by the bushfires, commencing from 21 November 2019.
As of 28 May 2020, the Insurance Council of Australia estimated that the VIC bushfires generated approximately 3,050 insurance claims with estimated insured losses of approximately $18.6 million.