ROYAL COMMISSION INTO BLACK FRIDAY BUSH FIRES

Judge Stretton

Listed below are selected extracts from the Royal Commission report written by Judge Leonard Stretton, who was selected to lead the inquiry into the 1939 Victoria bushfires. You can read about the cause of the fires, the evidence given, the role of the Forest Commission, and other general findings in the Report. Judge Stretton was instructed to specifically inquire into the causes of and measures taken to prevent the 1939 bushfires, and to protect life and property and the measures to be taken to prevent bushfires in Victoria and to protect life and property in the event of future bushfires.
Scientist link below will enable the reader to open statements from: The Firefighters, The Scientists, The Historians and The Decision Makers. Also there are links to The Story, The Time Line and Interactive Map. Hours of reading including the Royal Commission’s Findings, Newspaper Headlines, The Aftermath and Oral History and Fire Damage etc… 
Scientist – Senior Principal Research Scientist at the CSIRO and project leader of the bushfire group from 1975 – 2001.

The final report into the 1939 bush fires was presented to both Houses of Parliament by His Excellency’s Command in Victoria in 1939.the State of Victoria, the month of January of the year 1939 came towards the end of a long drought which had been aggravated by a severe hot, dry summer season. For more than twenty years the State of Victoria had not seen its country side and forests in such travail. Creeks and springs ceased to run.

“On the Sunday it was 110 degrees. On the Tuesday it was 112 degrees, and then Black Friday it was 114 degrees. It was a very bad time.”

Water storages were depleted. Provincial towns were facing the probability of cessation of water supply. In Melbourne, more than a million inhabitants were subjected to restrictions upon the use of water. Throughout the countryside, the farmers were carting water, if such was available, for their stock and themselves.

The rich plains, denied their beneficial rains, lay bare and baking; and the forests, from the foothills to the alpine heights, were tinder. The soft carpet of the forest floor was gone; the bone-dry litter crackled underfoot; dry heat and hot dry winds worked upon a land already dry, to suck from it the last, least drop of moisture.

Aboriginal communities were doing fuel reduction burning thousands of years ago. They used low intensity fires and they actually controlled it, we didn’t.” 

Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough. The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen.

And so it was that, when millions of acres of the forest were invaded by bushfires which were almost State-wide, there happened, because of great loss of life and property, the most disastrous forest calamity the State of Victoria has known.
Seventy-one lives were lost. Sixty-nine mills were burned.

Millions of acres of fine forest, of almost incalculable value, were destroyed or badly damaged. Townships were obliterated in a few minutes. Mills, houses, bridges, tramways, machinery, were burned to the ground; men, cattle, horses, sheep, were devoured by the fires or asphyxiated by the scorching debilitated air.

“We have gone very seriously into this question of control burning and we regard it as only to be resorted to in extreme cases.”

Generally, the numerous fires which during December, in many parts of Victoria, had been burning separately, as they do in any summer, either ‘under control’ as it is falsely and dangerously called, or entirely untended, reached the climax of their intensity and joined forces in a devastating confluence of flame on Friday, the 13th of January.

On that day it appeared that the whole State was alight. At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Men carrying hurricane lamps, worked to make safe their families and belongings. Travelers on the highways were trapped by fires or blazing fallen trees, and perished.

“The fires burned whole communities, and in less than eight hours, 62 people lost their lives. The ferocity of the fire-generated winds uprooted huge trees and snapped others half way up.”

Throughout the land there was daytime darkness. At one mill, desperate but futile efforts were made to clear of inflammable scrub the borders of the mill and mill settlement. All but one person, at that mill, were burned to death, many of them while trying to burrow to imagined safety in the sawdust heap.

Horses were found, still harnessed, in their stalls, dead, their limbs fantastically contorted. The full story of the killing of this small community is one of unpreparedness, because of apathy and ignorance and perhaps of something worse.

Steel girders and machinery were twisted by heat as if they had been of fine wire. Sleepers of heavy durable timber, set in the soil, their upper surfaces flush with the ground, were burnt through. Other heavy wood work disappeared, leaving no trace.
Where the fire was most intense the soil was burnt and destroyed to such a depth that it may be many years before it shall have been restored by the slow chemistry of Nature. Acres upon acres of the soil itself can be retained only by the effort of man in a fight against natural erosive forces.

“These conditions will happen again, and when they do, any bush fires that happen to start will be just as extensive and just as severe as 1939.”

The speed of the fires was appalling. They leaped from mountain peak to mountain peak, or far out into the lower country, lighting the forests 6 or 7 miles in advance of the main fires. Blown by a wind of great force, they roared as they traveled. Balls of crackling fire sped at a great pace in advance of the fires, consuming with a roaring, explosive noise, all that they touched.

Houses of brick were seen and heard to leap into a roar of flame before the fires had reached them. Some men of science hold the view that the fires generated and were preceded by inflammable gases which became alight. Great pieces of burning bark were carried by the wind to set in raging flame regions not yet reached by the fires.

Such was the force of the wind that, in many places, hundreds of trees of great size were blown clear of the earth, tons of soil, with embedded masses of rock, still adhering to the roots; for mile upon mile the former forest monarchs were laid in confusion, burnt, torn from the earth, and piled one upon another as matches strewn by a giant hand.

“The fires that regenerated these forests were extensive and particularly severe. There was no reason why they should not occur again.”

In the State of Victoria, the month of January of the year 1939 came towards the end of a long drought which had been aggravated by a severe hot, dry summer season. For more than twenty years the State of Victoria had not seen its countryside and forests in such travail. Creeks and springs ceased to run.

Water storages were depleted. Provincial towns were facing the probability of cessation of water supply. In Melbourne, more than a million inhabitants were subjected to restrictions upon the use of water. Throughout the countryside, the farmers were carting water, if such was available, for their stock and themselves.

The rich plains, denied their beneficial rains, lay bare and baking; and the forests, from the foothills to the alpine heights, were tinder. The soft carpet of the forest floor was gone; the bone-dry litter crackled underfoot; dry heat and hot dry winds worked upon a land already dry, to suck from it the last, least drop of moisture.

“The difference between 1939 and now is the isolation. People were living in the bush with a lack of communication, transport, equipment and organisation and people died.”

Men who had lived their lives in the bush went their ways in the shadow of dread expectancy. But though they felt the imminence of danger they could not tell that it was to be far greater than they could imagine. They had not lived long enough. The experience of the past could not guide them to an understanding of what might, and did, happen.

And so it was that, when millions of acres of the forest were invaded by bushfires which were almost State-wide, there happened, because of great loss of life and property, the most disastrous forest calamity the State of Victoria has known.

Seventy-one lives were lost. Sixty-nine mills were burned. Millions of acres of fine forest, of almost incalculable value, were destroyed or badly damaged. Townships were obliterated in a few minutes. Mills, houses, bridges, tramways, machinery, were burned to the ground; men, cattle, horses, sheep, were devoured by the fires or asphyxiated by the scorching debilitated air.

Generally, the numerous fires which during December, in many parts of Victoria, had been burning separately, as they do in any summer, either ‘under control’ as it is falsely and dangerously called, or entirely untended, reached the climax of their intensity and joined forces in a devastating confluence of flame on Friday, the 13th of January.

“At first glance you don’t realise the energy available if conditions ever become dry enough for all this material to burn.”

On that day it appeared that the whole State was alight. At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Men carrying hurricane lamps, worked to make safe their families and belongings. Travellers on the highways were trapped by fires or blazing fallen trees, and perished.

Throughout the land there was daytime darkness. At one mill, desperate but futile efforts were made to clear of inflammable scrub the borders of the mill and mill settlement. All but one person, at that mill, were burned to death, many of them while trying to burrow to imagined safety in the sawdust heap.

Horses were found, still harnessed, in their stalls, dead, their limbs fantastically contorted. The full story of the killing of this small community is one of unpreparedness, because of apathy and ignorance and perhaps of something worse.

“The CFA recognised that while suppression in wild fire is important, it is probably not as important as community preparedness, education and partnerships. It’s not our job alone.”

Steel girders and machinery were twisted by heat as if they had been of fine wire. Sleepers of heavy durable timber, set in the soil, their upper surfaces flush with the ground, were burnt through. Other heavy wood work disappeared, leaving no trace.

Where the fire was most intense the soil was burnt and destroyed to such a depth that it may be many years before it shall have been restored by the slow chemistry of Nature. Acres upon acres of the soil itself can be retained only by the effort of man in a fight against natural erosive forces.

The speed of the fires was appalling. They leaped from mountain peak to mountain peak, or far out into the lower country, lighting the forests 6 or 7 miles in advance of the main fires. Blown by a wind of great force, they roared as they traveled. Balls of crackling fire sped at a great pace in advance of the fires, consuming with a roaring, explosive noise, all that they touched.

Houses of brick were seen and heard to leap into a roar of flame before the fires had reached them. Some men of science hold the view that the fires generated and were preceded by inflammable gases which became alight. Great pieces of burning bark were carried by the wind to set in raging flame regions not yet reached by the fires.

Such was the force of the wind that, in many places, hundreds of trees of great size were blown clear of the earth, tons of soil, with embedded masses of rock, still adhering to the roots; for mile upon mile the former forest monarchs were laid in confusion, burnt, torn from the earth, and piled one upon another as matches strewn by a giant hand.

4 Comments

  1. Ray Wilson says:

    Hot days of 43 C, 44 C leading up to Black Friday at 45 C made the forests dry as a bone.
    The ABC’ coverage is the most comprehensive I have ever read on the subject.
    Pictures and the interviews with survivors were compelling. My father died in 2007 at the age of 96 and was among the fire fighters in north eastern victoria where he grew up.

  2. Shirl says:

    That’s what you expect in Australia extremely hot summers creeks drying up and bone dry fuel on the ground. Give us a break from this ridiculous world warming caper/left wing ideology.

  3. grace says:

    It might be politically correct to say climate change is causing these large bush fires but it is simply not true. There has been at least three royal commissions on fires in Australia with exactly the same causes: Very dry fuels and strong surface winds resulting in erratic fire behaviour and the development of strong convective activity capable of lifting firebrands such as burning bark high in the convection column. Strong upper air winds transported burning bark downwind for many kilometres, resulting in long-distance fire spotting.
    Spotting was an important factor in the spread of some fires. Firebrands carried by the strong winds spread from one ridge top to the next in areas of broken terrain.

  4. David Willison says:

    Wind is the killer. It adds to the heat of the fire by the amount of oxygen driven by the wind which will can make the fire almost unstoppable.

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