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Melbourne is the capital of possibly the most fire-prone territory in the world, and smoke and ash have often descended on Central Melbourne and flames have engulfed its suburban edges. Victoria is heavily forested with volatile eucalypts, has extensive pastures of long grass and is exposed to hot northerly winds from the inland, an incendiary combination. The massive inlet of Port Phillip Bay projects the city into the centre of its combustible hinterland.

Aboriginal peoples transformed the landscape with their 'firestick farming', creating open woodlands of mature, well-spaced trees which colonists described as like a 'gentleman's park'. Tens of thousands of years of Aboriginal burning cultivated a squatter's dream. Settlers, by contrast, suppressed fire, and the dry forests thickened, unleashing wildfires of catastrophic proportions. Elsewhere, particularly in the wet mountain forests north and east of Melbourne where Aboriginal fire management was always minimal, such periodic holocaust fires were endemic.

The great named fires of history and folklore - 'Black Thursday' (1851), 'Red Tuesday' (1898), 'Black Sunday' (1926), 'Black Friday' (1939) and 'Ash Wednesday' (1983) - darkened and in some cases invaded the city. 'Black Friday', 13 January 1939, was arguably the most significant date in the history of the natural environment in post-settlement Victoria, destroying 1.4 million ha of mountain forest north and east of Melbourne and claiming 71 lives. On Tuesday the 10th, it was 112 degrees F (44 degrees C), the hottest day in Melbourne since 1862. On Black Friday humidity reached a record low of 8%. Even amid the devastation, the city did not miss the chance to profit from the bush: flights over the bushfire areas were being offered by aircraft operators at Essendon Airport.

But in January 1962, as fires raged for days in the nearby Dandenong Ranges, the smoke was so thick over the city that Essendon and Moorabbin airports were closed to light aircraft. This fire threatened the weekenders of Melburnians, many of which had been established on scrubby blocks in the hills in the postwar years. The relatively new technology of television brought this fire into the loungerooms of city-dwellers, causing near hysteria, and thousands of casual volunteers, some in shorts and thongs, streamed into the hills offering themselves for firefighting. For the first time in its history, the Country Fire Authority, now using more mechanical equipment, turned most away. On the morning of 17 January, the Sun News-Pictorial ran the headline 'It leaps to suburbs' as the fire had jumped Whitehorse and Canterbury roads in Melbourne's east, coming within 19 km of the city centre.

The wildfire that seemed most to melt the distinctions between city and bush was the 'Ash Wednesday' fire of 16 February 1983. It claimed lives on the suburban fringe: some of the most devastated areas were in the foothills of the Dandenongs. The fire raised serious questions about the nature of urban planning and housing design, and also about the ability of Australians, especially city-dwellers and commuters, to take seriously the danger of bushfire. The Royal Commissioner into the 1939 fires had shaken his head in disbelief over the innocence of Australians living in or near the bush, and declared 'They had not lived long enough.' This verdict still held in 1983 and beyond.

As well as being invaded by bushfires, cities have their own fire regimes. Most volunteer firefighting today is against urban and structural fires. As fire historian Stephen Pyne puts it, 'instead of abolishing fire, the built environment added another season to it'.

Tom Griffiths

Griffiths, Tom, Secrets of the forest: Discovering history in Melbourne's Ash Range, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1992. Details