Black Friday (1939)

From Academic Kids

The Black Friday fires of 1939 were the worst in Australian history. Almost 20,000 km² were burnt, 71 people died, several towns were entirely destroyed, and the Royal Commission that resulted from it led to major changes in forest management. Over 1000 homes and 71 sawmills were also burnt.

In the days preceding the fires Melbourne recorded some of its hottest days in history: 43.8C (110.8F) on February 8, 44.7C (112.4F) on February 10 and 45.6C (114.1F) on February 13, the hottest day in Melbourne history (hottest since was recorded on January 25, 2003, 44.1C or 111.3F).

The summer of 1938-39 had been hot and dry, and several fires had broken out. By early January, fires were burning in a number of locations across the state. Then, on Friday January 13, a strong northerly wind hit the state, causing several of the fires to combine into one massive front.

The most damage was felt in the mountain and alpine areas, as well as the Otway and Yarra Ranges. The Acheron, Tanji and Thomson Valleys, as well as the Grampians, were also hit. Five townships - Hill End, Narbethong, Nayook West, Noojee, Woods Point were completely destroyed, and not all were rebuilt afterwards. The towns of Omeo, Pomonal, Warrandyte (though this is now a suburb of Melbourne, it was not in 1939) and Yarra Glen were also badly damaged.

Ash fell as far away as New Zealand. The fires came under control two days later, when rain fell on the night of Sunday the 15th.

The subsequent Royal Commission, under Judge L.E.B Stretton attributed the blame for the fires to careless burning, such as for campfires and land clearing. It made a number of recommendations to improve forest management and safety, such as the construction of fire towers and access trails. It also encouraged the creation of a regime of supervised burning, which still exists today.

The fires contributed directly to the passing of the Forests Act, which gave the Forests Commission responsibility for forest fire protection on public land. They were also a key factor in the founding of the Country Fire Authority in 1944.

The environmental effects from the fires continued for many years, and some of the burnt, dead trees still remain today. Large amounts of animal habitat were destroyed. In affected areas, the soil took decades to recover from the damage of the fires. In some areas, water supplies were contaminated for some years afterwards, due to ash and debris washing into catchment areas.

A book about the fires, Forests of Ash by Tom Griffiths, was released in 2002.

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