Extreme weather conditions made it possible, but the evil hand of man made a fatal contribution to the series of bushfires that broke out in Victoria on February 7 2009, before raging for five weeks. Over 400 individual blazes were reported on that traumatic first day, which was quickly christened Black Saturday by the media.
The situation couldn’t have been more conducive to conflagration. Prolonged drought conditions (linked by some to global warming) and a heatwave with temperatures reaching over 45°C (113°F) combined with wind speeds in excess of 100 kph (60 mph) to create optimum bushfire conditions. These duly broke out thanks to assorted causes including lightning strikes, electrical short-circuits, accidental ignition through human carelessness like discarded cigarette butts… and arson by persons unknown, described by Prime Minister Kevin Rudd as ‘mass murderers’.
Although fires were reported in dozens of locations, an area to the northeast of state capital Melbourne was hardest hit, with firestorms accounting for the majority of casualties suffered on Black Saturday and during its aftermath. The largest and most destructive was the Kingslake-Maryville fire complex, but other major outbreaks included Beechworth, Bendigo, Bunyip State Park, Coleraine, Dandenong Ranges, Horsham, Maroondah/Yarra, Redesdale, Weerite, West Gippsland and Wilsons Promontory.
Cooler conditions and rain at the beginning of March assisted firefighters but by the time it was all over in the middle of the month hectares (1.1 million acres) of forest, national parkland, agricultural land, rural communities and urban fringe areas had been laid waste. Over 170 victims had been killed, including one firefighter, and over 400 were seriously injured. More than 2,000 houses had been burned to the ground, along with 1,500 non-residential buildings, while thousands more had suffered damage.
A total of 78 townships had been affected and 7,500 people were made homeless.
When: February 7 to March 14 2009
Where: Victoria, Australia
Death toll: 173 people were killed by the bushfires.
You should know: On Black Saturday 3,500 firefighters were deployed in anticipation of trouble as the temperature soared to an all-time record 46.4C (115.5F) in Melbourne. At midday high winds felled power lines at Kilmore East, starting a bush fire that would rapidly generate a large pyrocumulus cloud and the most intense firestorm experienced in Australia’s post-settler history, it was the beginning of the country’s deadliest-ever bushfire event.