2009 Victorian bushfires

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Steels Creek house damaged by bushfires in the Kinglake complex
Steels Creek house damaged by bushfires in the Kinglake complex

The 2009 Victorian bushfires on Saturday 7 February 2009 were the worst bushfires in Australia's history, surpassing both the Ash Wednesday fires in 1983 and the Black Friday fires in 1939.

Contents

Kilmore East and Murrindindi Mill initial fire tracks


Initial track of the fires that started at Kilmore East and Murrindindi Mill.

Note: this map is not accurate

Note that the Kilmore East fire later travelled North East (after the southerly wind change) to burn Flowerdale.

Chronology of the fires

Bushfire burning at Wilsons Promontory since February 8
Bushfire burning at Wilsons Promontory since February 8
Wednesday 28 January 2009
Delburn fire started in Gippsland, arson suspected.
Monday 2 February 2009.
Bunyip State Park fire started by lightning
Saturday 7 February 2009. Black Saturday
Horsham fire started at 12:30
Kilmore fire started on farmland at about 14:30
Wandong, Kinglake West, Strathewan, Kinglake and Steels Creek and Flowerdale townships burnt.
Murrindindi Mill fire started, arson suspected.
Narbethong and Marysville townships burnt.
Churchill fire started, arson suspected.
Bendigo fire started at 16:30
17:00 Wind direction changed from northerly to southerly in Melbourne
Beechworth fire started at 19:00
Sunday 8 February 2009.
Kilmore and Murrindindi Mill fires merge to form the Kinglake fire complex.
Wilsons Promontory fire started by lightning

Weather

The fires came as Melbourne reached its hottest ever temperature of 46.4 degrees.[1]

The extremely hot temperatures were accompanied by very strong north westerly winds, which changed to strong south easterly winds in the late afternoon.

The combination of extreme heat and very strong winds resulted in the highest ever fire danger index warnings recorded in Australia.[2]

The fire danger index scale ranges from 0 to 100, with 100 being extreme fire danger. During Saturday 7 February, index warnings above 150 across Victoria were advised, with some areas exceeding 200.

Wind chart from Fawkner Beacon in Port Phillip bay illustrating wind change to Southerly at approximately 5pm in Melbourne

Impacts of fires

Loss of property

  • The fires have destroyed at least 1,834 homes, with thousands more suffering damage.
  • The fires have left an estimated 7,500 people homeless.

Deaths

  • As at February 20, 2009, 208 people are reported dead.
  • Several million native animals are estimated to have died.

Carbon emissions

Millions of tonnes of carbon have been released to the atmosphere. Australia's total emissions per year are around 330m tonnes of CO2. Previous research has shown that the bush fires in 2003 and 2006-07 had put up to 105m tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because they burned up land carrying 50 to 80 tonnes of carbon per hectare. This time, however, the forests being destroyed are even more carbon-rich, with more than 100 tonnes of above-ground carbon per hectare. The affected area is more than twice the size of London and takes in more than 20 towns north of Melbourne, so the CO2 emissions from this year's disaster could be far larger than previous fires.[3]

Water harvest falls

Water collection in dams affected by Victoria's bushfires could fall by 30 per cent in the decades ahead, Melbourne Water officials have warned. Three of Melbourne's four most important reservoirs have had fires in their catchments during the past 10 days, with two of the catchments suffering significant damage. [4]

Measures to reduce impacts of bushfires

After the fires, there has been much speculation about measures that could be adopted to reduce bushfire risks and impacts. A Royal Commission with a wide terms of reference has been announced by the Victorian Government to investigate these bushfires and make recommendations.

Some possible measures that may reduce bushfire risks and impacts include:

  • Fire-proof bunkers under or near houses.
  • Larger community fire-proof buildings in towns and schools.
  • Fire-retardant plants near buildings.
  • Clearing vegetation for the close proximity of buildings.
  • An early warning notification system via landline and mobile phones

Possible new building regulations

New building regulations to improve the fire resistant qualities of building such as:

  • Minimise or eliminate external woodwork such as deckings
  • Gutters which do not trap burning embers and leaves
  • Sealed roofs which do not allow burning leaves and embers in
  • Use of earth berms to protect building walls
  • Double glazed windows to provide more robust windows
  • Fire proof shutters over windows
  • Sprinkler systems to wet building roof spaces and walls
  • Gutter and downpipe systems that can be blocked and filled with water
  • Fire resistant wall materials such as concrete or tin
  • Provision of battery or petrol/diesel powered pumps and fire proof hoses for extinguishing and fighting fire

Steels Creek house - built to survive a bushfire

Steels Creek house
Steels Creek house

Despite being attacked twice by fire on Black Saturday from two different directions Mr Williams' Steels Creek home stood solid while everything around it was destroyed. Four of his neighbours died.

The fire that bore down on his house was about 1200 degrees, hot enough to soften the metal but not melt it. Glass doors and windows in his house are all double-glazed. Some of the outside panes cracked in the heat. Next time he'll add shutters

Features of the Steels Creek house that assisted its survival:

  • double-glazed doors and windows, some outside panes cracked in the heat
  • outside sprinkler to create a water canopy
  • autoclaved aerated concrete bricks (AAC) and concrete slab construction
  • There is no external timber to catch fire.
  • Door frames are steel and so is part of the balcony.
  • Colorbond tin roof
  • Solar panel array (now badly damaged)
  • A sprinkler system operates on three levels. In total, there are 30 sprinkler heads around the house, using 200 litres a minute.[5]
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