How bad were this year’s bushfires? Really…

The past, they say, is another country and it can be hard to compare it to the present; the two are filtered through different lenses.

How bad, in fact, were the bushfires this year compared to those in the past decades before wall-to-wall media coverage made each tragedy, each burnt-out suburb, appear of historical importance.

Making direct comparisons between years and decades for fire seasons is fraught, the technology to fight fires, population of the areas hit, media coverage, and winter fuel-load reduction policies, all vary so dramatically that each fire season is almost a separate story.

The 2019/2020 fire season certainly appeared unique. Starting in early October, it seemed that a new fire area broke-out on an almost daily basis with homes, Iives, and property lost on a depressingly-regular basis.

Few if any remember previous instances of the apocalyptic and claustrophobic smoke haze that seemed to blanket large areas of eastern Australian for days on end; choking the life and hope out of even the most stoic Australians.

Yet the politics of climate change and the modern tendency to over-report any cataclysm as exceptional, may have created a false understanding as to how bad the fires really were.

How did they compare, for instance, with the devastation of January 1939 in Victoria when 67 died; February 1967 in Tasmania with 3000 homes lost and 47 died; and Black Saturday in 2009 when 173 Victorians lost their lives in one day?

In brief, the 20019/2020 fires were among the worst; but not wholly-unique among the 230-year history of European settlement in Australia.

The worst year recorded for area burned, oddly enough, was 1974, when 117,000,000 hectares (290,000,000 acres) hectares burned, equivalent to the area of France, Spain, and Portugal combined. As most of these fires were in remote areas though, many Australians were only vaguely-aware of the amount of destruction to the natural environment. In fact, it was only after satellite images revealed the true extent of the devastation that Australian authorities themselves were aware of the scope of the damage.

For loss of life, The Black Saturday bushfires of February 2009 were the most destructive. These fires occurred during extreme bushfire weather conditions and resulted in Australia’s highest-ever loss of human life from a bushfire with 173 fatalities and thousands left homeless from 400 individual fires recorded on Saturday 7 February.

The Ash Wednesday fires were a series of bushfires that occurred in south-eastern Australia on 16 February 1983, which was Ash Wednesday. Within 12-hours, more than 180 fires fanned by winds of up to 110 km/h caused widespread destruction across the states of Victoria and South Australia. Years of severe drought and extreme weather combined to create one of Australia’s worst fire days in a century. In Victoria, 47 people died. There were 28 deaths in South Australia. This included 14 volunteers in Victoria and 3 in South Australia.

Many of the fatalities were as a result of firestorm conditions caused by a sudden and violent wind change in the evening which rapidly changed the direction and size of the fire front.

The speed and ferocity of the flames, aided by abundant fuels and a landscape immersed in smoke, made fire suppression and containment impossible. In many cases, residents fended for themselves as fires broke communications, cut off escape routes and severed electricity and water supplies.

Up to 8000 people were evacuated in Victoria at the height of the crisis and a state of disaster was declared for the first time in South Australia’s history. More than 35 townhouses were burned in a small town in Victoria.

Ash Wednesday was one of Australia’s costliest natural disasters More than 3700 buildings were destroyed or damaged and 2545 individuals and families lost their homes. Livestock losses included more than 340,000 sheep, 18,000 cattle and numerous native animals either dead or later destroyed. A total of 4,540 insurance claims were paid totalling A$176 million with a total estimated cost of well over $400 million.

The Black Friday bushfires of 13 January 1939, in VictoriaAustralia, were part of the devastating 1938–1939 bushfire season in Australia, which saw bushfires burning for the whole summer, and ash fall as far away as New Zealand. It was calculated that three-quarters of the State of Victoria was directly or indirectly affected by the disaster, while other Australian states and the Australian Capital Territory were also badly hit by fires and extreme heat.

Fires burned almost 2,000,000 hectares (4,900,000 acres) of land in Victoria, where 71 people were killed, and several towns were entirely obliterated. Over 1300 homes and 69 sawmills were burned, and 3700 buildings were destroyed or damaged.

NSW and the Australian Capital Territory also faced severe fires during the 1939 season. Destructive fires burned from the NSW South Coast, across the ranges and inland to Bathurst, while Sydney was ringed by fires which entered the outer suburbs, and fires raged towards the new capital at CanberraSouth Australia was also struck. 

In comparison the 2019–20 Australian bushfire season saw at least 2680 homes lost with 33 deaths and at least 18.626 million hectares (46.03 million acres) burned.

While this was the most destructive bushfire season in terms of human life and property loss since the 2008–09 Australian bushfire season with insurance losses of around A$353 million; it was not in itself record-setting. Australia is a large, dry continent prone to prolonged droughts and high radiant temperatures for much of summer.

While it is wise to learn new lessons from each disaster; portraying every fire season as the worst-ever does little justice to the stoicism and powers of recovery of our unique nation.

David Dixon

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