Prior to the events on Ash Wednesday, a drought lasting ten months had dried out the eastern Australian forests. The context on 16 February was characterised by heatwave conditions, low humidity and strong to gale force winds. Temperatures varied between the high thirties to mid forties over most of eastern South Australia and Victoria, with relative humidity generally at less than 15 per cent.
In Victoria, 47 people died, 150,000 hectares were burnt, 1620 houses and more than 1500 other buildings were destroyed and 32,400 livestock were lost.
In South Australia, 28 people died, including three CFS volunteer fire fighters. More than 1500 people were injured, 383 homes and 200 other buildings were destroyed and 160 000 hectares were burnt.
The Insurance Council of Australia estimated the 1983 damage for Victoria at $138 million and South Australia at $38 million; the 2011 estimated repeated cost was $1489 million for Victoria and $307 million for South Australia.
In the summer of 1982-3, the Victorian bushfire season commenced in November, with bushfires affecting Ballan, Cann River, Mount Donna Buang, and Mount Macedon (on 1 February). By early morning on Ash Wednesday, 104 fires were already burning in Victoria. Most were controlled or contained; after 2.00pm however, the situation escalated dramatically.
The Victorian fires formed several complexes:
Western district near Warrnambool
This fire started from a defective private power line. The resulting fire front was kilometres wide and moved at rapid speed. A cool change came through at 5.00pm; the wind changed to the south-west, and the fire moved toward the town of Terang. The fire passed the town to its north and was brought under control the next day. In total, nine people died, 50,000 hectares were burnt, 157 houses were destroyed and 19,300 head of livestock were lost. Another fatality occurred near Branxholme from a smaller fire caused by a power line fault.
East Trentham– Macedon fire complex
This fire began at approximately 2.00pm near East Trentham due to two powerlines touching and sparking. The fire moved to the Wombat State Forest and burnt much of Bullengarook. The fire stalled for a time, but picked up again following a wind change to the south-west, and moved towards Woodend at 8.30pm with a 7m fire front. The fire reached Macedon where people and animals sheltered in the Hotel protected by volunteers. The rest of the town was annihilated. After reaching the top of Mount Macedon, the fire was controlled in an area that was previously burnt on 1 February. Seven people died, 20,000 hectares were burnt, and 200 homes were destroyed in Macedon – 150 on Mount Macedon, 50 in Bullengarook and 20 in Woodend.
The fire broke out at approximately 3.00pm 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 fire continued to burn towards Aireys Inlet, where fibro houses were hit by walls of flame and an immense firestorm. Moving at extraordinary speed, the fire then moved through Anglesea; houses were lost, but the main part of town was saved. The fire burnt on through the night toward Jan Juc and Torquay and was eventually contained early morning near Bellbrae. Three people were killed and 578 houses and other buildings were lost.
Upper Beaconsfield – Cockatoo complex
This fire began in Belgrave Heights south of Mount Dandenong. Half an hour later and 10km away, a fire started in Cockatoo and remained static until later that night. The first fire moved 15km toward Berwick and Pakenham; firefighters were just beginning to gain control when a wind change at 8.30pm redirected the fire towards Upper Beaconsfield. Firefighters were caught in terrible circumstances leading to one fatality. The Cockatoo fire began to flare at 7.30pm and moved through the town – fire trucks had been called away to other fires. There were reports of women and children being sheltered and saved at a local kindergarten. In total, 27 people died, 100 were injured and 535 houses and buildings were destroyed.
This fire erupted in the foothills of mountain ash forests. It began in Millgrove at 7.30pm and quickly progressed to Warburton. Approximately 200 people took shelter at the local oval and at a creek in an underground tunnel. Thirty houses were destroyed.
Major fires were burning by noon on Ash Wednesday, particularly in the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley 120km north of Adelaide, and around Mount Gambier, in the south-east of the state. By 3pm the situation was extreme. A subsequent cold front hit with winds of 90 to 100 km per hour, aggravating the intensity of the fires. By 9pm, rain began to fall and the fires in the Adelaide hills came under control; the fires near Mount Gambier burned for a longer period.