Fanned by powerful winds, the Black Friday fires (13 January 1939) swept rapidly across large areas of Victoria, causing widespread destruction. Flames leaped large distances, and giant trees were blown out of the ground by fierce winds. Large pieces of burning bark (embers) were carried for kilometres, starting new fires in places that had not previously been affected by flames.

Almost two million hectares burned across the state. Large areas of state forest, containing giant stands of Mountain Ash and other valuable timbers, were destroyed. As a result, approximately 575,000 hectares of reserved forest and 780,000 hectares of Crown land burned.

A sawmill settlement near Matlock, east of Melbourne, 15 people died while escaping from the fires. The townships of Narbethong, Noojee, Woods Point, Nayook West and Hill End were completely destroyed. In addition, the townships of Warrandyte, Yarra Glen, Omeo and Pomonal were damaged.

The bushfires also affected the Black Range, Rubicon, Acheron, Noojee, Tanjil Bren, Hill End, Woods Point, Matlock, Erica, Omeo, Toombullup and the Black Forest. Intense fires burned the urban fringe of Melbourne in the Yarra Ranges east of Melbourne, affecting towns including Toolangi, Warburton and Thomson Valley.

The intensity of the fire produced vast amounts of smoke and ash, with reports of ash falling as far away as New Zealand. However, the devastation ended late on Sunday, 15 January, after rain fell across the state.

The fires caused a total of 71 deaths and thousands of sheep, cattle, and horses killed by the intense heat and flames.

How the fires started

Black Friday was the culmination of a dry summer following a drought period that had lasted several years. As a result, many creeks and rivers had dried up, and people living in Melbourne were under water restrictions. In addition, dry heat and hot winds sapped moisture from the ground, leaving forest floors and the open plains tinder dry.

The fires on Black Friday was also resulted to a combination of human causes. Landowners, 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.

Fires initially started as early as December 1938, and the majority had begun in the first week of January 1939. Some fires could not be extinguished, while others were left unattended. High temperatures and strong northerly winds fanned these separate fires. The fires eventually combined and created a massive fire front that swept mainly over the mountain country in the northeast of Victoria and along the coast in the southwest.

Environmental effects of Black Friday

The Black Friday bushfires had a significant impact on the environmental history of Victoria. The fires profoundly damaged hectares of forests, affected oil fertility, and impacted essential water catchments. In addition, soil burned to such a degree and depth that it took decades to restore its natural chemistry. Water catchments were severely impacted for years after the fires by ash, dirt, and burnt debris washed into rivers during heavy rain.

Large tree hollows and other vital habitats 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 northeast of Healesville, you can still see tall, dead mountain ash trees called 'stags' towering above the canopy.

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.

Black Friday Royal Commission

Three weeks after the bushfires, Judge Leonard E B Stretton led a Royal Commission into the causes of the January 1939 fires. Judge Stretton investigated procedures and measures needed to prevent the fires and protect life and property in the event of future bushfires.

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

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

The first significant initiative from Judge Stretton's recommendations was the Forests Act 1939, which enabled the 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. 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: Forests Commission (now DEWLP, the CFA, and the Metropolitan Fire Brigade (protecting inner Melbourne).

Judge Stretton recommended protecting forests through a strategic program of burning selected forest areas in a controlled way during spring and autumn (planned burns). Following the Black Friday bushfires, planned burning became an official fire management practice in Victoria.

Judge Stretton also recommended placing fire towers at strategic locations to ensure fires are detected early before they spread. With 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.

Read more about the Black Friday Royal Commission.

Page last updated: 16/06/21