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 Country Fire Service volunteer firefighters. 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.
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.