In February 2009, after months of dry summer weather, vast areas of Victoria experienced a series of intense and destructive bushfires. With weather conditions favouring bushfires, including strong dry winds and a heat wave, around 400 fires left a trail of devastation over an area of approximately 4,500km2. The peak of the disaster occurred on 7 February 2009, a day that has become known as Black Saturday.
The intensity of the fires made it near impossible for the thousands of firefighters to control many of the blazes. It was not until mid-March, aided by more favourable weather conditions, that most fires finally either burnt out or were extinguished.
The devastation of the fires that raged for around a month was extensive. the fires were responsible for the deaths of 173 people, with a further 414 injured. Entire towns were destroyed along with 4,500km2 of bushland, with extensive fauna, flora and agricultural losses. The event is the world’s eighth worst bushfire in recorded history.
More than 7,000 people were displaced and required temporary accommodation due to the destruction of over 3,500 structures including 2,000 homes. Stock losses were estimated at around 12,000, with wildlife casualties approximately one million. Extensive extensive crop and fruit tree losses occurred along with 7,000ha of plantation forest. The economic cost is difficult to estimate, however, the Bushfires Royal Commission put the figure at A$4.4 billion.
Despite the warnings prior to Black Saturday, the scale of the hundreds of bushfires was too much for the 3,500 firefighters to control. Firefighters were deployed to areas of greatest need across the state with the aid of a central disaster centre.
Firefigthers worked desperately to develop containment lines but in many cases the fires simply jumped the lines. All other emergency services personell were deployed and the Australian Army brought in to help. Community groups and even correctional facility prisoners contributed to the effort.
The firefighting effort raged for around a month and this created a significant challenge for personell in sustaining their effort, supplies and equipment. While some fires were brought under control or eventually extinguished, many fires burnt themselves out.
The scale of this event was clear as it was declared a national disaster by the Australian Government. The subsequent response was the formation of multiple appeals both by government and community to raise funds for the re-building process. It also resulted in a Royal Commission investigation which recommended the development of integrated fire management plans by councils.
There were also changes to laws and Australian Standards (e.g.Building Code of Australia) and the development of a new fire rating system known as the Fire Danger Rating. The Bureau of Meteorology now includes a Fire Danger Index in its forecasting system.