Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Major bushfires in Australian history – the 1851 Victorian bushfires

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John O’Donnell, September 2021

The Black Thursday bushfires were a devastating series of fires that swept the state of Victoria, Australia, on 6 February 1851, burning up 5 million hectares. This was 170 years ago.

Bushfire
Photo: Matt Palmer on Unsplash

Reasons for looking more closely into these major 1851 bushfires in Victoria include:

  • to understand the scale and severity of the bushfires;
  • to better understand Aboriginal burning practices;
  • to better understand what the early explorers settlers saw;
  • to consider the earliness of the bushfires in European history;
  • to better understand fuel loads and dynamics;
  • to try to tease out any lessons and observations, and
  • to assist with future bushfire management.

Summary

The weather conditions on 6 February 1851 were extreme, at midday on Thursday 6 February the thermometer at Charles Brentani’s shop was 110°F (43.3°C) in the shade and 129°F (53.9°C) in the sun.   Similar extremes were not reached again in Melbourne until 1876 (43.7°C in the shade), 1939 (45.6°C) and 2009 (46.4°C).  Fuels were extremely dry.  The bushfires on 6 February and at times after were intense and extensive, with up to 5 M hectares impacted. There are indications of very long distance firebrand movement in the 1851 bushfires as observed by Captain Reynolds.

The review has identified weather records in relation to the bushfires, however, these are not extensive. Also reviewed in detail is settlement, population and epidemics. Aboriginal use of fire and maintenance of forests as open and safe forests is considered in detail as is change in land management following European settlement.

Vegetation, fuels and fuel loads build up very quickly following reduction in Aboriginal cultural burning practices. It is apparent in 1851 the fire landscape wasn’t safe, given the 1851 bushfires scale and intensity. As noted by Howitt and other explorers, seedlings and regrowth was reduced after low intensity burns. As noted by Howitt in 1891 “After some years of occupation whole tracts of country became overgrown by forest and arborescent shrubs. The Black Thursday fires of 1851 followed from and reinforced these changes, “open forest” that had been occupied by aboriginal people became “dense scrub”, and red gum woodlands declined and died”. (Howitt 1891) (Jurskis, 2006). It is understood that there was extensive forest regrowth following the reduction in Aboriginal burning for each of the 1805, 1824 (early 1820’s) and 1851 bushfires.

The importance of Aboriginal cultural burning/ ecological maintenance burning in setting up safe and healthy landscapes is critical, apply this across landscapes.

There was some awareness of precautionary bushfire measures for crops and grasses at the time of the 1851 bushfires. Other risk measures were used such as in the Wimmera and provision was made for a place for safety in case of fire.

An Act to Restrain the Careless Use of Fire was passed in February 1854.

As outlined in Section 10, the review has identified a number of learnings and observations in relation to the 1851 bushfires (considered before, during and after the 1851 bushfires) and also for the future.

Looking at this laterally, there are potential opportunities to review farm and local practices to further reduce bushfire risks for stock, houses, structures at the paddock, farm and local government level, identifying strategic areas for stock safety areas. The same applies for identifying refuge areas, establishing effective firebreaks and managing fuel loads on roads which are escape paths.

Another potential learning area is provision of fire training and PPE for key personnel who will be involved in bushfires protecting houses, structures and infrastructure and will defend their homes.  There will always be a lot of people assisting in bushfire control and mop up, and it is better that these personnel are trained and have sound PPE when megafires arrive than not be.

Available time to research this review was limited and to a degree, restricted by Covid 19 restrictions on movement and library access.

If anyone has additional information in regards to the 1851 bushfires, it would be appreciated if a copy could be forwarded to: johnodonnell1954@outlook.com

About John O’Donnell

John is a retired district forester and environmental manager for hydro-electric construction and road construction projects.   His main interests are mild maintenance burning of forests, trying to change the culture of massive fuel loads in our forests setting up large bushfires, establishing healthy and safe landscapes, fire fighter safety, as well as town and city bushfire safety.

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