The Black Friday fires and the birth of CFA

Today marks the 80th anniversary of the tragic 1939 Victorian fires, which set in motion the establishment of CFA. 


It was on 13 January when many fires led to the deaths of 71 people, the destruction of more than 700 houses and businesses, and 1.6 million hectares of state forest burned.

It was a bad day forecast leading into the 1938-39 fire season, following a year of well-below-average rainfall, soaring temperatures and the abundance of fuel on the forest floor. Fires that started in December were out of control well into January, and by 13 January some of the fires had joined up to create infernos.

Victoria had sweltered leading up to 13 January 1939, and on the day the temperature peaked at 45.6oC in Melbourne and a north-westerly wind gusted up to 60km/hour. These conditions were feeding major fires in the alpine area, Portland, Otway Ranges, Grampians and the Strzelecki Ranges in West Gippsland, plus many smaller fires.

At the Royal Commission into the bushfires, many witnesses made the point that people were very reluctant to volunteer to fight the fires. Sometimes the police took the lead, sometimes it was the local fire brigades or government organisations such as the Forests Commission and the Lands Department. But often, no one was willing to take responsibility.   

The report from the Royal Commission urged the government to make reforms as soon as possible, including setting up a statewide fire authority and local fire authorities outside the control of the government. Commissioner Judge Leonard Stretton recommended that this new authority should be responsible for policy to prevent and suppress bushfires outside state forests, protect lives and property, organise and recruit local brigades, and maintain discipline of brigades.

Subsequent fires in 1944, in which 49 people died, led to the drafting of legislation for a single firefighting organisation to improve coordination of firefighting, which passed a few weeks later to establish a country fire authority.

CFA was implemented in April 1945, bringing together bush fire brigades and country fire brigades.

Author: CFA News & Media