Picnic at Hanging Rock.

Two weeks before Ash Wednesday, on Tuesday 1 February 1983, the weather forecast was for a very hot day with temperatures of 41 degrees and windy conditions. The CFA declared a Total Fire Ban (TFB).

A fire, which many believed had been deliberately lit, broke out at 12:49 pm just north of the Macedon Ranges near Braemar College which is surrounded by State forest.

The magnificent building was constructed as a guest house in 1889-90 and is believed to be the largest plywood structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Converted to the Clyde School for young ladies in about 1919 it became famous, to some extent, as Appleyard College in the Joan Lindsay’s 1967 fictional novel “Picnic at Hanging Rock”.

The campus with 460 students was being evacuated when CFA and Forests Commission Victoria (FCV) crews arrived at 1.00 pm. The main buildings were saved but some other outbuildings were lost.

The FFDI was close to 50, or extreme, and fuels in the messmate forest exceeded 20 tonnes per hectare. The fire quickly swept up the northern slopes of Mount Macedon with the strong winds behind it.

The fire made a 20 km run and a separate fire near Riddles Creek started on the same day.

Many believed it was the same person who lit the fire at Greendale only a few weeks earlier and police were hunting for the driver of a blue Datsun.

Five hundred FCV and CFA crew, with six bulldozers and 76 tankers were deployed. A CFA tanker was badly damaged too.

The Forests Commission quickly had several aircraft over the fire and deployed the MAFFS firebomber.

The fire destroyed about 50 homes. Radio and TV personality Derryn Hinch lost some buildings on his farm property, while footballer Terry Wheeler lost his house.

Most of the crew from the FCV Macedon nursery were deployed to the fire at the time and one of the homes lost at Hesket belonged to a nursery employee, Fred Van Blyenburgh.

The fire passed over the 30-metre-tall Telecom Tower while technician Kevin Sullivan was sitting on top of it. He wrapped a wet towel around his head and continued work when the fire had passed.

People were also stranded in the kiosk at the Memorial Cross near the summit of the mountain and needed to be rescued.

The situation became critical again at Braemar College later in the day with a wind change around 5.00 pm and the fire spread down the slopes to threaten the main buildings once again. Luckily, a 15-ha area had been fuel reduced by the Commission only months earlier in September 1982 which slowed the fire behaviour and enabled crews to save the historic wooden structure.

The fire was contained the next day, but hot weather continued for several more days with fears of a flare up occurring.

Daily blacking out and patrols continued in the heavier native forest and pine fuels, but a smouldering section near Cherokee reignited two weeks later at 05.30 am on Ash Wednesday, 16 February. This tied up significant FCV and CFA resources at the time when the East Trentham blaze broke out.

But more significantly, the area burnt on 1 February 1983 stopped the East Trentham fire as it made its deadly run up the slopes of Mount Macedon on Ash Wednesday.


The police arson squad investigated the fire and determined it was started with a petrol driven angle grinder cutting a steel water pipe by two contractors, Ron Benny an electrician and Len Wishart, a plumber. They were employed by The Woodend Water Trust and were ordered to complete the work on that day, despite it being a Total Fire Ban. At the time, the Woodend township was out of water because of the drought and supplies were being trucked up from Melbourne.

Benny and Wishart could only be convicted of offences under the Forests Act at that time. Criminal damage offences were dismissed at the Supreme Court. The State Government subsequently amended the Crimes Act to include Criminal Damage by negligence.

The Water Trust were found liable and paid out only a percentage of loss because they were under-insured for public liability.

The pilot of a small plane reported burning candle bark at 5000 feet which is thought to have started the fire at Riddles Creek.

The story widely reported in the media of the arsonist in a Blue Datsun was a furphy.

The Macedon bushfire # 11 on 1 February 1983 stopped the East Trentham fire as it made its deadly run up the slopes of Mount Macedon 15 days later on Ash Wednesday. Source: PROV
Braemar House was constructed in 1889-90 and is believed to be the largest plywood structure in the Southern Hemisphere. Converted to the Clyde School for young ladies in about 1918 it became famous in the Joan Lindsay novel Picnic at Hanging Rock. The building was saved in part because of a 15-hectare FRB a few months earlier. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/139706926
Exterior of Braemar Guest House before it became the Clyde School for young ladies in about 1918.
. http://handle.slv.vic.gov.au/10381/296681
The fire came close to the historic main building. Source: CFA
A 15-hectare area fuel reduced by the FCV in September 1982 near Braemar College saved the main buildings. The Point of Origin is shown. Map: Peter McHugh after Rawson et al (1985).

One thought on “Picnic at Hanging Rock.

  1. I was with a FCV crew from Gellibrand at that fire. Lot of backing out work as I recall. The SOU’s were a lot more basic then compared to these days. Saw the first Hilux SOU and was very impressed how well it performed. If I remember correctly the MAFFS wasn’t very effective.

    Liked by 1 person

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