Victoria and South Australia, February 1983

Bushfire - Ash Wednesday

Quick Statistics

75 Fatalities
1500 Injured
176 Million Insurance Costs
2000 Homes Destroyed

Prior to the events on Ash Wednesday a ten month drought had dried out the eastern Australian forests. On 16 February, there was low humidity, heat wave conditions and strong to gale force winds. Temperatures varied between high thirties and mid forties over most of eastern South Australia and Victoria with relative humidity generally less than 15 per cent.

The Victorian bushfire season started in November 1982 with 854 bushfires affecting Ballan, Mount Macedon (on 1 February), Cann River and Mount Donna Buang. On early Ash Wednesday morning there were 104 fires already burning in Victoria. Most were controlled or contained, but after 2pm the situation exploded.

The Victorian fires formed several complexes.
1. Western district near Warrnambool. This fire started from a defective private power line. The resulting fire front was kilometres wide and moved at frightening speed. A cool change came through at 5pm and the wind changed to the south-west. The fire headed 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 destroyed and 19,300 head of  livestock were lost. Another person died near Branxholme from a smaller fire caused by a power line fault.

2. East Trentham– Macedon fire complex. This fire began around 2pm 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 while but upon wind change to the south-west picked up again and at 8.30pm headed towards Woodend with a 7 m fire front. It 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 it was controlled in an area that was previously burnt on 1 February. Seven people died, 20,000 hectares were burnt, 200 homes destroyed in Macedon, 150 on Mount Macedon, 50 in Bullengarook and 20 in Woodend.

3. Otways complex. The fire broke out at approximately 3pm at Deans Marsh and moved toward Lorne and eventually onto the ridges above the town, then down to the sand dunes with many people taking refuge in the sea. It continued to burn towards  Aireys Inlet where fibro houses were hit by walls of flame and a gigantic firestorm. Moving at extraordinary speed, the fire next impacted Anglesea where 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.

4. Upper Beaconsfield – Cockatoo complex. This fire began in Belgrave Heights south of Mount Dandenong. Half an hour later, 10 km away, a fire started in Cockatoo and remained static until later that night. The first fire moved 15 km toward Berwick and Pakenham and 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 death. The Cockatoo fire began to flare at 7.30pm and the fire went right through the town as 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.

5. Warburton complex. This fire erupted in the foothills of mountain ash forests. It began in Millgrove at 7.30 pm 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.

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.

South Australia
Major fires were burning by noon on Ash Wednesday, particularly in the Adelaide Hills, Clare Valley 120 km north of Adelaide, and around Mount Gambier, the south-east of the state.  By 3 pm the situation was extreme. The cold front then hit with winds of 90 to 100 km per hour and the intensity of the fires worsened.  By 9pm rain began to fall and the fires in the Adelaide hills came under control. The fires near Mount Gambier took longer.

In total 28 people died, including three CFS volunteer fire fighters. More than 1500 people were injured, 383 homes and 200 other buildings 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 with the 2011 estimated repeated cost of $1489 million for Victoria and $307 million for South Australia.

Recommended reading

Books

  • Mundie E 1983, Cockatoo Ash Wednesday 1983: the people's story, Hyland House, Melbourne.
  • Gibbons, D & Paul, M 1990, Community development after the Macedon and Mt. Macedon bushfires on Ash Wednesday - 16 February 1983, Broadmeadows TAFE, Broadmeadows.
  • O'Conner P & B 1993, Out of the ashes: the Ash Wednesday bushfires in the south east of SA, 16th February, 1983, Mt Gambier, SA.
  • Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) 1983, Preliminary report on the Ash Wednesday fires - 16 February 1983, BOM, Melbourne.
  • Victorian Country Fire Authority (CFA) 1983, Report on Ash Wednesday, CFA, Melbourne.

Journal articles

  • Bell, A 1985, 'How bushfires set houses alight: lessons from Ash Wednesday', Ecos, no. 43, pp. 3-7.
  • Johns, L 1984, 'Lessons for the future : Ash Wednesday 1983', Volunteer, vol. 22, pp. 22-24.
  • McFarlane, A 1987, 'Firefighters and the psychological effects of the Ash Wednesday Bushfires: implications for disaster planners and emergency services', The Macedon Digest, vol. 2, no. 1, p. 2.
  • Pinches, A 1983, 'Ash Wednesday: reviews, reports and recriminations',The Australian Municipal Journal, November, pp. 147-149.
  • Valent, P 1984, 'The Ash Wednesday bushfires in Victoria', The Medical Journal of Australia, no. 141, pp. 291-300.

Information sources

Collins P, Burn the epic story of bushfire in Australia, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 2006, pp 207 – 226
Country Fire Authority, About Ash Wednesday, website viewed 8 August 2011
Department of Sustainability and Environment, Ash Wednesday bushfire – 1983, website viewed 8 August 2011
Insurance Council of Australia, Historical disaster statistics, March 2012, website viewed 23 May 2012 -