On Saturday 7th February 2009 the deadliest bushfires in the history of Australia cut a blazing swathe of destruction across the State of Victoria. 173 people lost their lives, over 2000 homes were razed and people from all over Australia were stunned by the enormity of the disaster.
The summer of 2008/2009 began on an optimistic note with good rains falling over much of Victoria and South Australia during December. This encouraged a growth spurt in the vegetation pattern across the area.
Then the rain abruptly stopped in January, temperatures rose and much of south-eastern Australia, including Victoria, found itself in the grip of a rolling heatwave that persisted across the area from mid January. Unlike other notable heatwaves of the past there was little respite, with high temperatures persisting for nearly two weeks from mid January.
Numerous temperature records were broken across Victoria, with many centres recording highest- ever temperatures between the 28th and 30th January. Over the five consecutive days from 27th to 31st January inclusive maximum temperatures were 12-15C above average across much of Victoria – a very rare if unprecedented heat wave.
On Tuesday 3rd February, the computer simulations began predicting what
both meteorologists and fire-fighters feared most. A strong cold front would move across south-eastern Australia on Saturday 7th February, preceded by hot, dry and gusty northwest winds and followed by a southwest change.
This would bring together all the ingredients of a major fire – abundant dry fuel, low humidity, strong winds, high temperatures and a wind change. The stage was set for disaster.
As the front approached Victoria on the morning of the 7th, rising northwest winds sent temperatures rocketing and the humidity plunging, fanning existing fires into infernos that rapidly jumped containment lines. Burning embers were carried aloft and transported kilometres downwind only to fall to the ground and start new fires in the tinder-dry scrub.
Large tracts of central Victoria became raging firestorms that devoured everything in their path as temperatures again reached, and then surpassed, the records set only a few days before.
Melbourne’s temperature peaked at 46.4C, well above the longstanding record of 45.6C set on the day of the infamous Black Friday fires of January 13th 1939.
As the front moved across Victoria during the afternoon winds abruptly swung to the southwest, adding another dimension in unpredictability to the blazes.
The situation remained completely beyond control until temperatures fell overnight and the winds began easing. It was only then that the total devastation produced by the fires began to be understood.
Image: Massive smoke plumes from the Black Saturday bushfires were visible from space. NASA satellite image on 7 February 2009, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.