Ash Wednesday (16 February 1983) experienced over 100 fires swept across Victoria and South Australia, killing 75 people and causing widespread damage. High temperatures, intense winds, and low summer rainfall caused a high fire danger in Victoria's eucalypt forests.

A total of 47 people died, and 2,080 homes were destroyed in Victoria. Many businesses, stores, equipment, machinery, stock, and other private assets were also destroyed. The total cost of the property-related damage in Victoria was estimated to be over $200 million.

Leading up to Ash Wednesday

Before Ash Wednesday, most of Victoria had experienced a drought lasting 10 months or more. Rainfall over winter and spring was low, and summer rainfall for Victoria was up to 75 percent less than in previous years. Low rainfall meant less moisture in the soil, and water supplies in many places were almost dry. The moisture in the air, known as relative humidity, was also low.

Bushfires require fuel such as dry leaves, twigs, and other vegetation matter to keep burning. Therefore, fuel sources were dry and forest vegetation in valleys and gullies, usually moist in summer, was also very dry.

The hot and dry weather towards the end of 1982 gave firefighters an early warning of what might lie ahead. As a result, the earliest total fire ban day ever declared up to that point in time occurred on 24 November 1982.

The Victorian Government firefighting agencies employed extra staff and organised additional equipment and aircraft to be ready over summer.

The first big bushfire occurred on 25 November 1983 and large fires followed from 3 December to 1 February. February 1983 was one of the hottest and driest Februarys on record.

Strong winds lifted 200,000 tonnes of dried soil from the ground and created a vast dust storm across southern Australia on 9 February 1983.

The dust combined with smoke from burning fires and reduced visibility, making firefighting very difficult. In addition, the dust cloud was so large and thick it blocked out the sun in Melbourne and gave people little warning of approaching bushfires.

Ash Wednesday

It was clear skies and rising temperatures on the morning of Ash Wednesday. A front (or band) of cold air was located in the Great Australian Bight off the coast of South Australia. The front caused the hot air in the centre of Australia to be drawn southwards, creating a hot, dry northerly wind over Victoria. As a result, temperatures in many places rose to over 40 degrees Celsius, and air moisture dropped below 15 percent.

Many bushfires were reported in the early to mid-afternoon. However, by late afternoon, the front moved inland, and the northerly winds became much stronger. The winds were pushing the fires in a southerly direction creating long, narrow fires. Spot fires spread quickly and joined ahead of the central fire, making it difficult for firefighters to control.

Winds Change

The wind change moved through southwest Victoria by early evening. The disastrous westerly winds caused the fires to change direction and size.

Prior, the fires had been relatively long and thin with a narrow front. After the wind change, the long side of the fire then became the front and burning became much broader. The wind change also caused fires to merge, like the Cudgee/Ballangeich fire near Warrnambool. Most of the losses of life and property occurred in the hour following the wind change.

Recognised Causes

The causes of the Ash Wednesday fires include sparks caused by a combination of damaged electricity power lines, tree branches hitting power lines, and deliberately lit fires.

Overall Damage

Public land affected by the fires includes the Dandenong Ranges National Park, the Wombat State Forest, and the Otways State Forest. In total, the 1982–83 summer burned over 486,030 hectares of parks and forests. Over 120,000 hectares of private land burned.

The fires damaged valuable timber in State forests with losses of around $50 million. The fires burned the vegetation that protects the soil. After the fires, there was further damage through soil erosion, affecting streams and water catchments.

Due to the large numbers of fires burning on Ash Wednesday, most of Victoria suffered damage, with nine of the fires being larger than 150 hectares in size. As a result, eight areas and townships of Victoria were severely affected and summarised in the table below.

Area/townFire size
(hectares)
DeathsBuildings lost
Cudgee/Ballangeich50,0009872
East Trentham/Mt Macedon29,5007628
Otway Ranges41,0003782
Belgrave Heights/Upper Beaconsfield9,20021238
Cockatoo1,8006307
Monivae3,1810numerous
Branxholme200110
Warburton40,000057

Over 16,000 firefighters attended the Ash Wednesday fires, including park and forest firefighters and Country Fire Authority volunteers, with 400 vehicles (fire trucks, water tankers, and dozers), 11 helicopters, and 14 fixed-wing aircraft. Also assisting in fighting the fires were 1,000 police, 500 defence force personnel, and countless local residents. Park and forest offices were also damaged or destroyed.

South Australia

The fires also reached South Australia, burning 208,000 hectares in the Adelaide Hills and farming country in the state's southeast. In addition, destroying 21,000 hectares of pine plantations. The fires in South Australia killed 28 people and destroyed 383 houses. The estimated cost of damage was more than $200 million.

Review

After Ash Wednesday fires, a review commenced on bushfire disaster preparedness and response in Victoria.

Report of the Bushfire Review Committee

Page last updated: 02/07/21