February 7, 1967: Australia Bushfires Kill 62


WHAT HAPPENED? (1)


On February 7, 1967, the Tasmanian fires occurred, one of Australia's largest natural disasters. They became known as the Black Tuesday bush fires.


The fires were the most deadly bush fires that Tasmania had ever experienced, and remains one of the deadliest fires in Australian history.


62 people died in nearly 5 hours. 900 people were injured, and over 7,000 people were left homeless. Over 653,025 acres were burned, and 1,293 houses were destroyed.


It was caused by a bit of a perfect storm of weather conditions, as well as quite a bit of arson.


THE FIRES & THE DAMAGE


At one time, there were 110 different fires burning through the land, all within a span of 5 hours. (1)


The fires caused a lot of damage. Beyond the loss of life, it destroyed parts of the forest, public infrastructure, properties and small towns. 1,700 non-residential buildings were destroyed, along with 80 bridges, 4,800 sections of power lines, 1,500 motor vehicles, and 100 other structures. It is estimated that 62,000 farm animals were killed. (1)


The total damage cost, in 1967 Australian dollars, $400,000,000. (1)


Firefighter Gerald Crawford, who was a child at the time of the fires, said that the amount of different fires just continued to grow. (2)


"Some of the smaller fires just got bigger, some of the smaller ones joined up with each other, and some of the bigger ones joined up."


Essentially, the firefighters were fighting a losing battle the entire time. The winds were blowing strongly, knocking down burning trees which would block access to the road for people trying to get out, or people trying to fight the fires. (2)


Additionally, phone calls were made impossible because of the poles being blown down, so there was no communication. People didn't know if their properties were still standing, or if their families were alive. (2)


THE CAUSE OF THE CATASTROPHE


The late winter and early spring of 1966 had been really wet in southeast Tasmania, causing a large amount of vegetation growth during the year. (1)


But, in November, the driest 8-month period since 1885 began, and by the end of January 1967, most everything had dried off. (1)


January was a bit cold, but when February came, it brought really hot weather. And so, leading up to the catastrophe on the 7th, bush fires began breaking out and were not controlled. (1)


Some had deliberately set fires, even though most were aware of the extremely try conditions. In fact, reports into the fire stated that only 22 of the 110 fires were started by accident - meaning a vast majority were set purposefully. (1)


On the 7th, the temperatures were expected to reach 102 degrees Fahrenheit, the humidity was low, and there were extremely strong winds. A perfect storm. (1)


A report also showed other issues that likely didn't cause the fire but exacerbated their intensity, including a high fuel load from the increased use of super-phosphate fertilizers at the time. (2)


Additionally, a lot of the lives lost may have come from people not understanding the severity of the situation, having lived through many fire seasons that didn't have this affect. (2)


However, though this is one of the worst fires in the country's history, the meteorological conditions were quite common. In fact, it has been reported that extremely similar weather conditions have occurred 3-4 times in the last 70 years, with no disaster of this size happening as a result. (1)


RESIDENTS REMEMBER (3)


Children were sent home from school, but many of them couldn't get to their homes. They were left not knowing if when they got home, if their house would still be standing.


Years later, many people who were children or involved at the time were interviewed, sharing what they remembered from that day.


"We cried, we were very scared," said Notela Martain, who was a young student at the Snug Area School. "There was an awful stench which we learnt the next day was the Pitts poultry farm which had totally burnt."


"We said our goodbyes," Rosemary Wilkinson, a 10 year old who was trapped at the Fern Tree Tavern, which she hoped was safe. "Lots of people were crying, people hiding under cars and little gullies."


Alan Gilfford, who was a firefighter at the time, remembered saving a man's life before his home collapsed. "We found the old fella in the corner, cowering from the fire that was in the opposite corner. His face was blistered, pulpy sort of skin on his face. We got him outside and just as we crossed the road, there was a loud burst of wind and the fire just totally consumed the whole house."


Gerald Crawford was 14 at the time, and went on to be a firefighter (he is quoted in the section above). He remembered, "it was very warm, it was very windy, and by midday there was so much smoke in the air, you couldn't see 100 meters in front of you."


John Gledhill was also 14 at the time and also went on to be a firefighter with the Tasmania Fire Service. He was there for 35 years, with 15 of those as chief. He remembered that, because the phone lines were down, one radio station was broadcasting personal messages. He remembered listening to it late through the night.


OTHER BUSH FIRES


Considering both loss of life and loss of property, the 1967 Black Tuesday fires are still one of the worst fires in the country. But, there have been many other devastating fires in Australia.


In 1939, bush fires in Victoria killed 72 people, but spanned over a few days. (1)


In 1983, the Ash Wednesday bush fires in Victoria and Southern Australia claimed the lives of 75 people and over 2,000 homes. (1)


The 2009 Black Saturday bush fires of Melbourne killed 173 people. These fires also began on February 7. (1)


Most top of mind right now, though, are the 2019-2020 fires that have been ravaging for months. They have been in the news as scientists, activists and celebrities alike have used their voices to spread the word about the fires and climate changes' affect on them. Millions of people, celebrities and just normal people alike, have donated, raising millions of dollars for the efforts to put the fires out in Australia.


At least 28 people have died and more than 3,000 homes have been destroyed or damaged just in New South Wales alone. (4)


Though fire season is always dangerous, Australia just experienced one of the worst droughts in decades, experienced a heatwave with an extremely high average temperature, and strong winds have exacerbated the situation. Entire downs have been engulfed in flames and many residents have lost their homes. (4)


More than 17.9 million acres have been burned across all 6 of Australia's states, and, estimating conservatively, nearly half a billion animals have been affected, with millions likely dead. (4)


Though the fires will likely continue to rage on throughout the season, recently, the amount of active fires dropped from 60 to 42 in one day after a torrential downpour - the largest in 20 years. Of course, now there is concern about flash floods and landslides, but it is helping to get the fires under control. (5)


Many firefighters feel confident that the rainfall will help to bring the un-contained bush fires under control. (5)


Weather fires are a weather concern where you live or not, most can agree that the idea of a blaze ravaging through your country, your state, or your city is terrifying. 62 people lost their lives due to one of these fires 53 years ago, and despite many changes that were made after that fire and subsequent fires, Australia still deals with and will likely always deal with their annual fire season.


If you would like to donate to the Australian fire relief efforts, many places accepting donations are listed here, including places to donate to support the firefighters, provide resources for displaced people or help out the animals.


REFERENCES:

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1967_Tasmanian_fires

2. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-06/tasmanias-1967-black-tuesday-bushfires-explained/8241698

3. https://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-06/tasmanian-bushfire-anniversary-residents-share-their-memories/8241688

4. https://www.cnn.com/2020/01/01/australia/australia-fires-explainer-intl-hnk-scli/index.html

5. https://news.sky.com/story/australia-bushfires-biggest-rainfall-in-20-years-delivers-much-needed-relief-11928058

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