Raging Firestorm                        Click to Enlarge

According to Forestry Management Victoria, Black Friday, 13th of January 1939, was the culmination of a long, dry and hot summer following  a long drought period  that had lasted several years. Many creeks and rivers had dried up and people living in Melbourne were on water restrictions. Dry heat and hot winds had sapped much of the moisture from the ground, leaving forest floors and the open plains tinder dry.Prior to January  13, many fires were already burning. Some had started as early as December 1938, but the majority had  started in the first week of January 1939. Some of the fires could not be extinguished while others were left unattended, or as Judge Stretton wrote, “fires were allowed to burn under control as it is falsely and dangerously called”.

The fires of

January 1939 were to be etched in the memories of those involved for the rest of their lives. Flames leapt large distances, giant trees were blown out of the ground by fierce winds and large pieces of burning bark (embers) were carried for kilometres ahead of the main fire front, starting new fires in places  not previously been affected by  flames.

Mega Fire                                Click to enlarge

Over 1,000 homes were burned, and the townships of Narbethong, Noojee, Woods Point, Nayook West and Hill End were destroyed. The townships of Warrandyte, Yarra Glen, Omeo and Pomonal were badly damaged. Intense fires burned on the urban fringe of Melbourne in the Yarra Ranges east of Melbourne, affecting towns including Toolangi, Warburton and Thomson Valley. The alpine towns of Bright, Cudgewa and Corryong were also affected, as were vast areas in the west of the state, in particular Portland, the Otway Ranges and the Grampians. The bushfires also affected the Black Range, Rubicon, Acheron, Noojee, Tanjil Bren, Hill End, Woods Point, Matlock, Erica, Omeo, Toombullup and the Black Forest.

Large areas of state forest, containing giant stands of Mountain Ash and other valuable timbers, were killed. Approximately 575,000 hectares of reserved forest, and 780,000 hectares of forested Crown land were burned. Flames leapt large distances, giant trees were blown out of the ground by fierce winds and large pieces of burning bark (embers) were carried for kilometres ahead of the main fire front, starting new fires in places that had not previously been affected by flames. A total of 69 sawmills were burned and 71 lives lost. At one sawmill settlement near Matlock, east of Melbourne, 15 people died while trying to escape from the fires.

Geoffery Blainy, Historian, Wrote: “January 1939 was a dry month and many fires were already burning in bushland when Friday the 13th dawned. A day of sizzling heat, Melbourne suburbs could smell the smoke early in the morning. By nine o’clock the temperature in Melbourne was close to 36 degree Celsius. Not in living memory and not in the record of the weather bureau, had such heat had descended so early. As the day went on, a gloomy haze filled  the sky. By noon the temperature in the shade was 45 degrees Celsius. A gusty wind blew like giant bellows from the north, the sweet sour smell of bushfire smoke. From time to time the gusts of wind accelerated, and to go outdoors was like walking into the wind of the Sahara, except the wind carried smoke not sand. The grasslands were largely spared–they were too bare in the summer of unusual dryness–but the mountain forests offered millions of tons of dry fuel. The fires pounced destroying about a third of all the state forests”.

The intensity of the fire produced huge amounts of smoke and ash, with reports of ash falling as far away as New Zealand.

The devastation ended late on Sunday January 15 after rain fell across the state


  1. Colin Chalmers says:

    Friday the 13th of January, 1939 was 45.6 degrees Celsius (114.1 F) Melbourne’s second hottest day on record. Melbourne’s hottest day on record was on 7 February, 2009 when the temperature reached 46.4 °C (115.5 °F) in the CBD.

  2. Geraldine says:

    They did not have the equipment or any way of fighting the fires from the air and there were far less fire trucks than what they have today. All my grandfather’s family had was a stick with a bag tied to the end of it. Firefighters had a “back pack” water container that was used to spray water from a hand held pump. Melbourne was ringed by fire and some of the creeks were boiling. Some fires were caused by the practice of “burning off” days before that were still smoldering by the time Black Friday came around.

  3. Talford says:

    The claim the recent fires are more intense and are happening more often due to the increase in world temperatures is ridiculous. The Wikipedia website easily disproves that.

  4. Hans says:

    The average global temperature since the beginning of the twentieth century is 13.90 degrees Celsius. 1940 shows and anomaly of 0.08 degrees Celsius…13.98 degrees Celsius. The anomaly for 2018 is estimated to be 0.78 degrees Celsius….14.68 degrees Celsius..
    This is a drop in temperatures since 2016 which had an anomaly of 0.94 degrees Celsius and 2017 which was 0.84 degrees Celsius, 14.84, 14.74 and 14.68 degrees Celsius respectively.
    To what extent man is involved, and what is natural, is uncertain particularly if global temperatures continue to drop and the fact that temperature readings prior to 1990 were unreliable due to sparsely located thermometers. But you would think that the removal of one third of the world’s trees and the clearing of land to make way for our burgeoning population has to have had some effect!

  5. Sando says:

    The UN want the world’s cattle reduced because of the methane they emit. However India who have the largest number at 330 million will continue to allow its herds to increase unabated because the cow is sacred. Brazil, who have the second largest at 210 million, is skeptical about climate change and could withdraw from the climate accord at any time and China, who have the third most cows at over 100 million, won’t be taking any action on climate control until 2030, if at all.

    • Naismith says:

      The IPCC want the world’s countries to employ measures to reduce GHG emissions at a rate that would ensure that the warming of the planet would not exceed 1.5 C more than pre industrial levels, which I understand to be 1880, by 2100. Some say earlier some say later though the IPCC won’t say… either way the methods of measuring temperature during this early period were inadequate to say the least.
      According to one climate record indicating an average global temperature for the decade 1881-1890 at 13.65 C. So if we were to use that as the base line the global temperature in 2100 would need to be less than 15.15 C. According to NOAA the global temperature for 2016 was 14.84 C, although it has cooled slightly since then, it would mean a leeway of only 0.31 C and that would be without taking into account natural warming.

  6. Sharkey T. says:

    Bush fires in Australia will continue to occur with the same intensity as long as we have high temperatures and strong north winds no matter whether the world is warming or not.

  7. Florida Mansions says:

    Agreed. There is no evidence to suggest a correlation between the incidence or the ferocity of bush fires and any rise global temperatures. Bush fires are no more prevalent today than what they were in the early 1900’s. World temperatures might be higher today than what they were 100 years ago because there were far less built up areas and there were no concrete high rise buildings. Data from satellites, the most accurate way of measuring global temperatures, show very little warming in the 20 years since their inception..

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