The worst bushfires in Australia’s history

By Liz T. Williams 3 November 2011
Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page
Bushfires have long been part of the Australian landscape but some of the worst will always stay in our minds.

Bushfires, although a part of the Australian landscape for millions of years, have a wrought a significant amount of damage, some far worse than others.

Worst fires have high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds

The most devastating fires are usually preceded by record high temperatures, low relative humidity and strong winds, which create ideal conditions for the rapid spread of fire. Though much of Australia has come out of severe drought and much of the outback is green, this spells trouble for bushfires, as grasslands have significantly increased – providing a ready fuel source for bushfires.

In urban areas, fine fuels such as mulch, timbre decks and housing materials dry out in high heat and low humidity, which helps feed the flames. But not all urban areas are at high risk.

“Menacing bushfires that cause death and house loss aren’t universal across Australia,” Justin says. “They’re quite focused to smaller regions on the Australian continent, and that’s mainly because the severe fire weather that sets the scene for really bad fires [in urban areas]…only occurs in certain areas.”

Bushfire management

The Northern Territory, for example, has avoided fire-related deaths despite the widespread yearly presence of bushfires throughout the state. (See a time lapse video of bushfires in Australia over the last decade).

Researchers attribute this to relatively mild fire weather conditions, the state’s sparse population and community awareness.

While New South Wales, Canberra, South Australia and Tasmania have all experienced devastating bushfires in recent years, it is Victoria – particularly in regions near Melbourne—that stands out as a hotbed for bushfire activity. Four of the five deadliest fires on record in Australia have been in Victoria.

Deadliest bushfires on record

(Ranked according to number of fatalities)

1. Black Summer, July 2019 – March 2020

High temperatures following years of repeated drought brought one of the worst bushfires seasons to ever strike. The Black Summer fires ravaged the Australian landscape, in NSW alone 5.4 million hectares burned sending recording breaking temperatures across the country. Smoke from the fires was responsible for 450 deaths, while2 6 fatalities were directly caused by the fires. In total, over 18 million hectares of land burnt, creating devastating losses for biodiversity.

2. Black Saturday (VIC), 7-8 Feb 2009

Black Saturday resulted from some of the worst fire conditions ever recorded in Victoria. Record-high temperatures and strong winds after a season of intense drought set the bush alight across the state, causing widespread devastation, 173 fatalities and the destruction of more than 2000 homes.

3. Ash Wednesday (VIC, SA), 16-18 Feb 1983

Widespread drought, gale-force winds, high temperatures and low relative humidity set the scene for a series of fires across Victoria and south-eastern South Australia. Accidents and arsonists started most of the fires, which spread rapidly through scenic residential regions near Melbourne and Adelaide, resulting in the death of 75 people and the destruction of nearly 1900 homes.

4. Black Friday (VIC), 13-20 Jan 1939

Drought conditions and water shortages also preceded Black Friday, but the usual combination of high temperatures, strong winds, and low humidity finally triggered fires throughout bush communities near Melbourne. Well-meaning locals and graziers made the problem worse by trying to use controlled burns to protect themselves from disaster, only to see their good intentions help spread the flames. In all, 71 people were killed and 650 houses were destroyed. A Royal Commission investigation into the fires led to increased fire awareness and prevention efforts throughout Australia.

5. Black Tuesday (TAS), 7 Feb 1967

An unusually abundant spring covered Tasmanian forest floors with litter, providing excess fuel for the bushfire season. Strong northerly winds and high temperatures coupled to help fuel at least 80 different fires across southern Tasmania, which swept over the south-east coast of the state and came within 2km of central Hobart. The fires killed 62 people and razed almost 1300 homes.

6. Gippsland fires and Black Sunday (VIC), 1 Feb-10 Mar 1926 

Large areas of Gippsland caught fire, culminating in the Black Sunday fires on 14 February that killed 31 people in Warburton, near Melbourne. Over the two-month period, a total of 60 people were killed.

Receive great savings and a gift when you subscribe to our magazine