Remember devastating bushfires of past to remain vigilant

To some extent, the memory of Ash Wednesday in 1983 has been overshadowed by the more recent devastation and higher fatality numbers of Black Saturday in 2009. 

Nevertheless, it is an anniversary worth dwelling on as much for the future as for the past. 

At the end of an ominous summer of drought, a massive dust storm presaged the apocalyptic scenes to come from Angelsea, Macedon and Upper Beaconsfield.  

To a certain extent, the 44 years that had passed since Black Friday in 1939 had softened the harshness of that lesson and people were again blithely building in high-risk areas. 

Time heals many wounds, and by the 25th anniversary of Ash Wednesday in 2008, the population in fire-fraught areas like Macedon and the Dandenongs had doubled. 

Communications, equipment and firefighting techniques had all improved over the decades. 

But 2009 showed with appalling clarity that the perfect storm of conditions can again make a mockery of these defences and any human life that chances in its way. 

Another Royal Commission since 2009 has been invaluable in delineating the lessons of the disaster but it cannot ultimately resolve the creeping collective amnesia of public awareness.  

Despite the unparalleled magnitude and frequency of the fires across Victoria over the last decade all pointing to a changing climate and rising hazard, memories still seem to be short. 

The reassuring comfort of a couple of wet years and again these horrors seem comfortably distant. 

Camping fires are left smouldering, hot machinery is used on high-risk days and cigarette butts are still tossed from car windows.

In 2013, Ballarat has so far had a harrowing season. Over the last six weeks there have been fires at almost every point of the compass. 

Fortunately with the exception of the Chepstowe fires, the damage to property has been minimised and the fires rapidly contained.  

The quick and rigorous reaction of the fire services has played a major part in this, as has the fortuitous nature of the weather. 

However, this does not obviate how close many of these fires have been to populated areas.   Warrenheip’s volcano-like plume last week brought an eerie signal to Ballarat how close and real the fire threat is.

Similarly, the negligible wind on Saturday meant multiple fires in the Creswick forest that could have had devastating impact on nearby communities were brought under control quickly. 

The result is to be celebrated but the lessons – like those of sombre dates 1939, 1983 and 2009 – should be reiterated to keep memory and vigilance alive.


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