I remember my call to Victorian hardwood pioneer Ron ‘Digger’ Smith on a February evening in 1983.
A blanket of red smoke was creeping over the family sawmill at Naringal, 160 km west of Melbourne.
“Here we go again,” said an anxious Digger Smith, recalling the Black Friday fires of January 13, 1939.
The family was preparing for the worst as the sky opened fire with a barrage of sparks across a 1000-km front behind the property.
Digger stood his ground, but not for long. The flames that would engulf the property were the beginning of what became the early battleground for that horrendous February 16 Ash Wednesday.
A heatwave during a 10-month drought, very low humidity, temperatures as high as 43C and winds reaching more than 100 km played into Nature’s hands.
The first fire of the day was reported south of Adelaide mid-morning. Within hours, more than 180 fires had broken out across two states. They would eventually raze 400,000 ha – an area four times the size of metropolitan Melbourne.
Almost 2 million ha burned across the state. Large areas of state forest containing giant stands of mountain ash and other valuable timbers were destroyed. As a result, about 575,000 ha of reserved forest and 780,000 ha of Crown land succumbed to the avalanche of flames.
The grim figures: around 180 fires with at least 100 in Victoria alone; 75 deaths (South Australia 28, Victoria 47, including 21 at Upper Beaconsfield on the outskirts of Melbourne); more than 3000 properties destroyed; 340,000 sheep and 18,000 cattle lost; damage bill around $400 million (around $1.56 billion today).
The lives lost were remembered at a state-based memorial service in Victoria on Sunday, February 12, marking the 40th anniversary of the 1983 event.
The Country Fire Authority commemorated the anniversary at the Bushfire Education Centre at Cockatoo in the Dandenong Ranges.
The location was chosen after consultation with Volunteer Fire Brigades Victoria and the Veterans of Ash Wednesday Group from CFA District 8 as this provided an overview of the eight major fires on the day.
The town of Cockatoo hosted the visit in May 1983 of Prince Charles and Lady Diana who with the help of Victorian Premier John Cain planted trees at a special ceremony in the Dandenongs during their Australian tour. Lady Diana’s planting of a eucalypt marked the rebirth of forests devastated in the Ash Wednesday fires.
It was the at the Royal couple’s insistence that they visit the bushfire areas of Victoria and South Australia and meet the people who suffered and survived.
Victoria’s Country Fire Association’s chief officer Jason Heffernan opened the ceremony in Cockatoo, describing Ash Wednesday as a devastating time in Victoria’s history.
“The day is permanently etched into the minds of several generations of Victorians,” he told the crowd.
“These brave men and women focused on trying to protect life, to guard life as a primary purpose, as the day turned into night … as the firestorm swept throughout the state. Tragically 47 Victorians lost their lives that day.”
The Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 also struck at the heart of South Australia’s plantation softwoods; the loss of 17,00 ha left an estimated timber loss, including pulpwood, of 10 million cub metres. (See clipping from Australian Timberman, March 1983).
Footnote: The small Smith sawmill at Naringal closed in 2015. It had been run by the family since the end of World War 2 and founder Ron ‘Digger’ Smith worked at the mill for 70 years before retiring at the grand old age of 95. His son Ray worked at the mill for almost 50 years.