Victoria and South Australia

Ash Wednesday Bushfire, 1983

Quick Statistics

75 Fatalities
1500 Injured
176 Million Insurance Costs
2000 Homes Destroyed

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.

South Australia

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.


Recommended reading


  • Australian Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) 1983, Preliminary report on the Ash Wednesday fires - 16 February 1983, BOM, Melbourne
  • Gibbons, D & Paul, M 1990, Community development after the Macedon and Mt. Macedon bushfires on Ash Wednesday - 16 February 1983, Broadmeadows TAFE, Broadmeadows
  • Mundie E 1983, Cockatoo Ash Wednesday 1983: the people's story, Hyland House, Melbourne
  • 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
  • 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


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.