7 of the Most Destructive Wildfires in Australian History

While the images from the recent Australian bushfires are heartbreaking, they are not the worst the continent has ever experienced.
Christopher McFadden

The recent news and images of the extent of Australian bushfires are enough to cause anyone distress but they are not, by a long shot, the worst that Australia has ever experienced. Here are 7 examples of fires that have been more widespread and more deadly.


What is a bushfire and how does it occur?

Bushfires, as the name suggests, is a fire that starts in scrub or a forest, that tends to also spread very rapidly.

"Bushfires and grassfires are common throughout Australia. Grassfires are fast-moving, passing in five to ten seconds and smoldering for minutes. They have a low to medium intensity and primarily damage crops, livestock and farming infrastructure, such as fences. Bushfires are generally slower-moving but have a higher heat output. This means they pass in two to five minutes, but they can smolder for days. Fire in the crown of the tree canopy can move rapidly." - The Australian Government.

history of Australian bushfires
Source: WildandFree/iStock

With the right conditions, bushfires can be started by various natural or human activities. These can include vehicle fires, cigarette butts or campfires, controlled fires, and spontaneous ignition or lightning strikes.

"For a bushfire to start there needs to be fuel, in the form of leaves and/or wood and an ignition or flame point. This ignition can be caused either naturally by a lightning strike, spontaneous combustion or a deliberate/accidental flame." - clearlyexplained.com

Are the bushfires still burning?

As of a few days ago, heavy rainfall, thunderstorms, and hail have quenched much of the flames that have devastated Australia over the last few weeks. That being said, some bushfires are still very much ablaze in areas of Australia. 

As of Tuesday this week, 87 fires are still burning in New South Wales alone. 

“We’ve had significant rainfall through the eastern Gippsland in the past 48 hours,” a spokesperson for the Country Fire Authority told the Guardian in an interview. “Bairnsdale received more than 75mm. Mount Moornapa received more than 130mm which is a new January record.”

But despite the reprieve, many Australian fire authorities are warning that the crisis is far from over. They predict many more fires to either continue burning or spread after the current bout of precipitation stops. 

“It hasn’t necessarily extinguished them completely, but it has temporarily stopped their spread,” Ben Shepherd from the NSW Rural Fire Service has said.

“They are by no means out. But we have seen a reduction, and it has given some crews a chance to take a break before we see the possibility of fire activity over NSW increasing,” Shepherd added.

Where do bushfires tend to occur in Australia?

According to the official Australian Government's website on this very issue, most bushfires tend to be located in either the New South Wales region or the Northern Territory of Australia.

But, that being said, they can occur in many other regions of the continent when the conditions are right.

history of Australian bushfires forest
Source: bertknot/Flickr

"The Australian climate is generally hot, dry and prone to drought. At any time of the year, some parts of Australia are prone to bushfires. The widely varied fire seasons are reflected in the continent's different weather patterns.

For most of southern Australia, the danger period is summer and autumn. For New South Wales and southern Queensland, the peak risk usually occurs in spring and early summer. The Northern Territory experiences most of its fires in winter and spring.

Grassland fires frequently occur after good periods of rainfall which result in abundant growth that dries out in hot weather. Bushfires tend to occur when light and heavy fuel loads in Eucalypt forests have dried out, usually following periods of low rainfall." - The Australian Government.

What were some of the worst bushfires in Australia's history?

So, without further ado, here are some of the worst bushfires in Australia's history. This list is far from exhaustive and is ranked, as best we can ascertain, by the number of hectares devastated by the flames.

1. The 1974-1975 Australian bushfires were almost apocalyptic

Despite all the news currently circulating about the terrible damage caused by the current bushfires in Australia, it is not the worst the continent has seen. By way of example, the 1974 to 1975 bushfires nationwide (but mostly in Central Australia) were the worst in recorded history (by extent).

Somewhere in the region of over 117,000,000 hectares were burnt to the ground constituting around 15% of Australia's area. That's an area roughly the size of Spain and France.

The fires were concentrated in central Australia where few people live -- mercifully. About three people were killed with 100 or so injured.

40 homes were lost and around 50,000 livestock were killed. 10,170 km of fencing was also set ablaze. 

2. The 1969-70 Dry River-Victoria River fire was also pretty bad

The next worst bushfire season (by extent) in recorded Australian history occurred during the 1969-70 season in Australia's Northern Territory. An area of roughly 45,000,000 hectares was decimated.

The fires were so bad that many people had to stay in their cars to survive. Despite that, 23 people were killed.

"Twenty-three people died, including 17 motorists at Lara, trapped on the then highway between Geelong and Melbourne. The fires also destroyed 230 houses, 21 other buildings, and more than 12,000 stock." - ffm.vic.gov.au

3. The 2002 Northern Territory bushfires were also devastating

Between late 2002 and early 2003, somewhere in the region of 38,000,000 hectares went up in flames. Mostly isolated to Australia's Northern Territory, 41 houses were destroyed and about 7 people lost their lives.

This was around 29% of the Northern Territory's total area. 

The fires are thought to have been ignited by lightning strikes and followed a drought at the time. But planned fires had also been ignited in some of the affected areas. 

Thousands of individual fires broke out over the period with thousands of rescue personnel engaged to fight fires and conduct search and rescue for affected civilians. 

4. "Black Thursday" bushfires were terrible

Another infamous bushfire event was the so-called "Black Thursday" bushfires of 1851. Thursday the 6th of February 1851 saw some of the most intense fires and gave the event its name.

Primarily concentrated in Victoria, about 5,000,000 hectares were lost to the flames. An estimated 1 million sheep, thousands of cattle and 12 people are thought to have lost their lives in the disaster.

"Fires covered a quarter of what is now Victoria (approximately 5 million hectares). Areas affected include Portland, Plenty Ranges, Westernport, the Wimmera, and Dandenong districts. Approximately 12 lives, one million sheep and thousands of cattle were lost" - written account from the time, State Library Victoria

According to written accounts from that time, the fires followed a particularly intense drought and extreme heat at the time. 

5. 2009's "Black Saturday" has claimed the most deaths in Australian recorded history

The so-called "Black Saturday" bushfires of 2009 have been, by death toll, the worst in Australia's history. Primarily located in Victoria and South Australia, somewhere in the region of 173 people lost their lives, and 2029 homes were gutted by flames. 

A further 414 were injured and an estimated 1 million wild and domesticated animals were destroyed. An area of roughly 450,000 hectares was burned to the ground.

The fires followed a particularly severe heatwave with places like Melbourne enduring temperatures in excess of 40 degrees.

6. 1983's "Ash Wednesday" was another very bad series of bushfires

Another deadly series of bushfires was the 1983 "Ash Wednesday" bushfires in South Australia and Victoria. This horrendous event claimed the lives of 75 people and destroyed around 2,000 homes.

"Residents recall the day was part of a heatwave during a 10-month drought, with very low humidity, temperatures as high as 43C and winds reaching more than 100 kilometers per hour." - ABC News

400,000 hectares of land were lost and many witnesses likened the fires to looking at "the gates of hell".

7. The 1967 "Black Tuesday" bushfires were also pretty deadly

And lastly, but by no means least, another incredibly destructive Australian bushfire occurred in 1967. Called "Black Tuesday", the fires were primarily located in Tasmania and claimed the lives of 64 people.

1,293 homes were destroyed, 900 other people were injured and 7,000 people were made homeless in just a few days. Roughly 264,270 hectares of land were also consumed by fire. 

According to sources like ABC News, 110 separate fires broke-out spread by wind speeds reaching 110 kph in places. The fires followed a dry season that was the worst seen for the region since 1885. 

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