BLACK FRIDAY IN VICTORIA, JANUARY 1939
Despite the presence of La Niña, the winter
and spring months of 1938 were extremely dry; southern Victoria, in
fact, had its driest ever July-December period. As vegetation dried
out, serious fires recurred throughout the normally fire-free spring
months - as early as August a dangerous "crown" fire developed
near Creswick. By January, most of Victoria was in an extremely hazardous condition.
In the first week of January 1939, an almost stationary
high pressure system became established over the Tasman Sea, where it
remained until the 14th. Very hot air from the continental interior
moved across southeastern Australia, with heat wave conditions
in Victoria from the 6th to 13th (though weak cold fronts every two
or three days brought temporary milder spells to the south).
In Melbourne, 43.1°C was recorded on the 8th, and a record 44.7°C, on the 10th.
On these days, many large fires broke out and spread fiercely, claiming 21 lives.
Critically, these fires could not be extinguished, despite milder conditions in southern Victoria
on the 11th and 12th.
Buildings ablaze in West Healesville, in Victoria's forest country, during the
January 1939 fires. (Photo courtesy of the Department of Sustainability & Environment, Victoria).
Sometimes in Melbourne, the night before the onset
of severe fire weather conditions is calm and mild, as a shallow layer
of stable air near the earth's surface, topped by what is known as an atmospheric
inversion, insulates the city from hot air and strengthening winds
aloft. Such was the night of the 12th in Melbourne. When the inversion
broke on the morning of the 13th, temperature and wind-speed increased
dramatically and relative humidity plummeted. At 12.30pm the temperature
peaked at a new record 45.6°C. Under the influence of the strong,
hot winds, fires already burning quickly coalesced into a vast area of
flame. Timber towns such as Woods Point, Noojee, and Matlock were burnt
to the ground, as extensive tracts of mountain ash forest (including
Melbourne's main catchment area) were incinerated. Many people
were trapped and perished in burning timber mills. Two fire fronts converged
on Warrandyte, an outer Melbourne suburb, necessitating evacuations
and causing heavy property losses. Huge fires also raged in southeastern
South Australia, and over southwestern Victoria. In all, another
50 people died on Black Friday. A cool change reached central
Victoria in the early afternoon of the 13th (fortunately without squally winds,
as occurred on Ash Wednesday), but virtually no rain accompanied the change.
The resulting Royal Commission into the fires headed
by Justice Stretton found that most fires were caused by the uninformed
actions of landowners and others, who routinely used fire in activities such as land clearing.
Many of the recommendations concerning the organisation and powers of
rural fire fighting authorities in Victoria were eventually implemented.