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This Day in History

Australian History

Friday, January 13, 1939. :   71 people die in Victoria in bushfires on 'Black Friday'.

     Friday the thirteenth is considered by the superstitious to be a day associated with bad luck. Friday, 13 January 1939, was indeed a devastating day, when a firestorm swept across southern Victoria, killing 71. The state had already experienced a hotter and drier than usual winter and spring. The effects of this were exacerbated in the first week of January 1939 when an almost stationary high pressure system established itself over the Tasman Sea, bringing very hot air from the continental interior across southeastern Australia. In Adelaide, South Australia, temperatures had reached a searing 47.6 degrees Celsius on the 12th. Heatwave conditions in Victoria caused several spot fires across the state. On Friday the 13th, a strong northerly wind hit the state, causing several of the fires to combine into one massive front, fanning the fires into a wall of flame.

Many people living in sawmilling towns in the mountains were killed. Fifteen died at Fitzpatrick’s mill near Matlock. The townships of Narbethong, Noojee, Woods Point, Nayook West and Hill End were burnt to the ground while Warrandyte, Yarra Glen, Omeo and Pomonal were badly damaged, as were settlements in the Yarra Ranges, such as Toolangi, Matlock, Rubicon, the Acheron valley, Tanjil and Thomson valleys and Warburton. Alpine areas in the North East such as Bright, Cudgewa and Corryong were affected, along with the Otway Ranges, the Grampians and areas in the southwest. Some of the resultant ash and smoke fell as far away as New Zealand. The bushfires were only doused by welcome rains on January 15.

The land took several decades to recover from the devastation. Ash and debris washing into catchment areas contaminated some water supplies for years. The only good to come out of the disaster was that the fires contributed directly to the passing of the Forests Act, which gave the Forests Commission responsibility for forest fire protection on public land.

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