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Remembering Ash Wednesday
Today marks the anniversary of the Ash Wednesday bushfires, on 16 February 1983.
Within twelve hours on the day, more than 180 fires were fanned by winds of up to 110 km/h, causing widespread destruction across Victoria and South Australia.
Years of severe drought and extreme weather combined to create one of Australia's worst fire days in a century. These fires became the deadliest bushfire in Australian history, until the bushfires of February 2009.
In Victoria, 47 people died and there were 28 deaths in South Australia. This included 14 CFA and three CFS volunteer firefighters who died across both states that day. Many fatalities were as a result of firestorm conditions caused by a sudden and violent wind change in the evening which rapidly changed the direction and size of the fire front.
The speed and ferocity of the flames, aided by abundant fuels and a landscape immersed in smoke made fire suppression and containment impossible. In many cases, residents fended for themselves as fires broke communications, cut off escape routes and severed electricity and water supplies. Up to 8,000 people were evacuated in Victoria at the height of the crisis.
Ash Wednesday was one of Australia's costliest natural disasters. Over 3,700 buildings were destroyed or damaged and 2,545 individuals and families lost their homes. Livestock losses were very high, with over 340,000 sheep, 18,000 cattle and numerous native animals either dead or later destroyed. A total of 4,540 insurance claims were paid totalling $176 million with a total estimated cost of well over $400 million (1983 values).
The emergency saw the largest number of volunteers called to duty from across Australia at the same time – an estimated 130,000 firefighters, defence force personnel, relief workers and support crews.
An ominous sign of things to come occurred on the afternoon of 8 February, when Melbourne was enveloped by a giant dust storm. The dust cloud was over 300 metres high and 500 kilometres long and was composed of an estimated 50,000 tonnes of topsoil from the drought ravaged Wimmera and Mallee areas of north-west Victoria.
Leading a dry cool change and preceded by record temperatures, the dust storm cut visibility in Melbourne to 100 metres, creating near darkness for almost an hour.
The most disastrous factor in the Ash Wednesday fires occurred just before nightfall when a fierce and dry wind change swept across Victoria. This abruptly changed the direction and dramatically increased the intensity of the fires.
The long corridors of flame that had been driven all day by a strong northerly were suddenly hit by gale force south-westerly winds and became enormous fire fronts, many kilometres wide, reportedly moving faster than 110 km/h.
The near-cyclonic strength of the wind change created an unstoppable firestorm. Survivors reported that the roar of the fire front was similar to that of a jet engine, though multiplied fifty, or maybe a hundred times.
The change in temperature and air pressure was so savage that houses were seen exploding before fire could actually touch them.
Whole townships were affected in minutes. In the Dandenong Ranges, Cockatoo and Upper Beaconsfield were devastated, with 12 volunteer firefighters losing their lives after being trapped by a wall of flame when the wind change struck.
Most of Macedon and much of historic Mount Macedon to the north west of Melbourne was razed, including many heritage listed 19th century mansions and famed gardens.
The morning after Ash Wednesday, towns along the Great Ocean Road such as Aireys Inlet, Anglesea and Lorne resembled barren moonscapes. The fire on the coast had been so intense that firefighters were forced to abandon all control efforts and let it burn until it reached the ocean, destroying everything in its path. Sadly the firefighters could merely sit back and watch what was happening.
The total land area burnt in Victoria was approximately 2,100 square kilometres. This was a day that so many would never forget.