Fanned by extremely strong winds, these fires swept rapidly across large areas of Victoria, causing widespread destruction. An  area of almost two million hectares was burned across the state, with 71 people losing their lives. Whole townships were destroyed, many sawmills burned to the ground and thousands of sheep, cattle and horses were killed by the intense heat and flames.

Three weeks after the bushfires, a Royal Commission was convened with Judge Leonard E B Stretton selected to lead inquiry. The Judge was instructed to inquire into the causes of the January 1939 fires, the measures taken to prevent the fires and to protect life and property.

Judge Stretton also investigated what  procedures had been put in place to protect life and property in the event of future bushfires.

'When millions of acres of the forest were invaded by bushfires which were almost statewide, there happened, because of great loss of life and property, the most disastrous forest calamity the State of Victoria has known. These fires were lit by the hand of man.' - Judge Leonard Stretton, 1939

The lead up to Black Friday

Black Friday was the culmination of a long, dry and hot summer following  a drought period  that had lasted several years. Many creeks and rivers had dried up and people living in Melbourne were on water restrictions.

Dry heat and hot winds sapped much of the moisture from the ground, leaving forest floors and the open plains tinder dry.

Prior to January  13, many fires were already burning. Some had started as early as December 1938, but the majority had  started in the first week of January 1939. Some of the fires could not be extinguished while others were left unattended, or as Judge Stretton wrote, the fires were allowed to burn '"under control", as it is falsely and dangerously called'.

High temperatures and strong northerly winds fanned these separate fires on the day. The fires eventually combined and  created a massive fire front that swept mainly over the mountain country in the north east of Victoria, and along the coast in the south west.

The Black Friday disaster

The fires of January 1939 were to be etched in the memories of those involved for the rest of their lives.

Flames leapt large distances, giant trees were blown out of the ground by fierce winds and large pieces of burning bark (embers) were carried for kilometres ahead of the main fire front, starting new fires in places that had not previously been affected by flames.

A total of 69 sawmills were burned and 71 lives lost. At one sawmill settlement near Matlock, east of Melbourne, 15 people died while trying to escape from the fires.

Over 1,000 homes were burned, and the townships of Narbethong, Noojee, Woods Point, Nayook West and Hill End were destroyed. The townships of Warrandyte, Yarra Glen, Omeo and Pomonal were badly damaged. Intense fires burned on the urban fringe of Melbourne in the Yarra Ranges east of Melbourne, affecting towns including Toolangi, Warburton and Thomson Valley. The alpine towns of Bright, Cudgewa and Corryong were also affected, as were vast areas in the west of the state, in particular Portland, the Otway Ranges and the Grampians. The bushfires also affected the Black Range, Rubicon, Acheron, Noojee, Tanjil Bren, Hill End, Woods Point, Matlock, Erica, Omeo, Toombullup and the Black Forest.

Large areas of state forest, containing giant stands of Mountain Ash and other valuable timbers, were killed. Approximately 575,000 hectares of reserved forest, and 780,000 hectares of forested Crown land were burned.

The intensity of the fire produced huge amounts of smoke and ash, with reports of ash falling as far away as New Zealand.

The devastation ended late on Sunday January 15 after rain fell across the state.

How the fires started

Although the summer had been extremely hot and dry following a long period of drought, the fires that resulted in Black Friday came from a combination of human causes.

Land owners, graziers, miners, forest workers and campers either deliberately or carelessly contributed to the 1939 fires by lighting fires before 13 January. The causes included burning off for land clearing and grass growth, lighting campfires, inappropriate sawmill operations and domestic fires.

Many of these fires still smouldered when the hot, dry, windy conditions occurred on 13 January, 1939.

Judge Stretton wrote in his report: 'it will appear that no one cause may properly be said to have been the sole cause', however the fires were 'lit by the hand of man'.

Environmental effects of Black Friday

The 1939 bushfires were perhaps the most significant event in the environmental history of Victoria, profoundly damaging millions of hectares of forests, affecting soil fertility and impacting important water catchments.

Where the fires were most intense, soil was burned to such a degree and depth that it took decades for it to restore its natural chemistry. Water catchments were severely impacted with ash, dirt and burnt debris being washed into rivers during heavy rain. These contaminated water catchments for years after the fires.

Large tree hollows and other important habitat for mammals and birds, including the Leadbeater's possum and powerful owl, were destroyed when the mature mountain ash forests burned. Even today, as you drive through the Yarra Ranges National Park to the north-east of Healesville, you can still see tall, dead mountain ash trees called 'stags' towering above the canopy – these are constant, stark reminders of the magnitude of the bushfires over 70 years ago.

In the years immediately after the fires, the Forests Commission organised an enormous salvage operation to harvest as much burnt mountain ash timber as possible, before it rotted.

What has changed since 1939

Judge Stretton made seven major recommendations to improve forest and fire management and to help prevent events like the Black Friday bushfires from occurring again.

These recommendations aimed at achieving a clearer separation of fire and forest management, better cooperation between competing government departments, and more flexible and comprehensible laws of fire protection and prevention. The findings of the Royal Commission still inform Victoria's fire management practices today.

The first major initiative from Judge Stretton's recommendations was the provision of the Forests Act 1939 which enabled the then-named Forests Commission (now the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning) to take complete control of fire suppression and prevention on public land in Victoria.

Both the Forests Commission and the then Board of Works previously undertook forest and fire management and this created confusion as to who should be in charge of overall fire management.

In 1944 the Country Fire Authority (now CFA) was formed to manage fire on private land outside greater Melbourne. There were now three separate firefighting agencies in Victoria – the Forests Commission (now DEWLP the CFA and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (protecting inner Melbourne).

Judge Stretton also recommended the protection of forests through a strategic program of burning selected areas of forest in a controlled way during spring and autumn.

Following the Black Friday bushfires, planned burning became an official fire management practice in Victoria.

Judge Stretton's recommendations also included placing fire towers at strategic locations to ensure fires could be detected early before they spread and an enhanced network of roads and access tracks within the millions of hectares of public land in Victoria. This network has allowed access for firefighters and their equipment into the more remote areas of the state which prior to  1939, was virtually impossible.

Before the 1939 fires, firefighters did not wear specific protective equipment. They used wet hessian sacks to extinguish fires  and undertook no firefighting training prior to working on the fire line.

The continual development of protective equipment, such as overalls and helmets, specialised firefighting vehicles and training programs to ensure firefighter safety, has become a major priority for all three firefighting agencies, particularly in recent times.

Aircraft are used to help locate new fires and water-bombing aircraft are now also used to carry out fire suppression efforts.

Judge Stretton's Royal Commission

To find out more about the Royal Commission after the 1939 fires, see reviews and enquiries.