Ash Wednesday – 1983, East Trentham & Macedon.

A day of Total Fire Ban (TFB) was declared for Victoria at 06.30 am on Ash Wednesday 16 February 1983, and Forests Commission Victoria (FCV) crews were kept close to the depot at Trentham with the intent that everyone would be back in the yard by midday.

Peter Brown was the Trentham District Forester and John Nicholson was the local CFA Regional Officer at Gisborne.

The bushfire two weeks earlier on 1 February at nearby Macedon flared again after a smouldering section near Cherokee reignited at 05.30 am. This tied up significant local FCV and CFA resources from the Macedon District. Additional crew with a 2700 litre tanker and a 4WD Slip-On-Unit were dispatched from Trentham at 11.33 am and all remaining Trentham crew then returned to the depot.

At 09.00 am at Trentham it was 27 degrees with a RH of 32% and wind 5-10 km/hr from the north. Forecasts were for increasing temperatures and winds with reducing humidity.

A small fire was reported at 2.04 pm at Dunn’s Road Bullengarook by Mt. Blackwood firetower. It was believed to have started by powerlines touching nearby eucalypt regrowth growing under and through the conductors. It was quickly contained by four CFA tankers and a Slip-on-Unit with 2 FCV firefighters from Trentham.

A new fire #22 was reported eighteen minutes later at 2.22 pm near the intersection of James Lane and O’Connell’s Road at East Trentham by FCV towers at Mt. Macedon and Blue Mount. The suspected cause was two powerlines touching and sparking.

Crews from the CFA, and all those remaining from the FCV at Trentham including 12 firefighters, two 4WD Slip-On-Units, one FAD and a dual cab 4WD, under the control of FCV overseer Des Kelly, rushed to the site. But frustratingly, a brand-new pump on the CFA tanker refused to start.

Within 10 minutes the fire had burnt through 800 m of grassland. FCV Crews concentrated on the eastern flank and the FAD constructed mineral earth trail, while tankers extinguished the flames.

A CFA spotting aircraft was soon overhead.

After traveling south about 1.5 km the fire collided into some mixed species bush of messmate and narrow leaf peppermint. There was also candle bark and manna gum, both with long ribbon bark, which is very prone to long distance spotting.

Winds gusted at 90 km/hr from the north so Gisborne, Bullengarook and Toolern Vale were in grave danger.

The fire continued to spot between 10-12 km ahead into a forest block at Coimadai. Fires also spotted into grassland 25 km from the main fire at Melton and Deer Park. These were rapidly controlled by the CFA.

The last major bushfires in the area were in 1939 and 1944 and fuel loads were estimated to be 30 tonnes/ha in some locations. There had been recent fuel reduction burning in the Bullengarook area, but it was insufficient to stop the main run of fire.

By 3.00 pm the temperature at Trentham had risen to 38 degrees, winds to 20-40 km/hr and the RH dropped to 18%. The FFDI exceeded 60, or extreme.

Additional FCV crews from Daylesford, Creswick, Ballarat, Beauford, You Yangs and Otways were on their way. Crews from Northern Division including Bendigo and Castlemaine were the first to arrive. The Otways crew led by Norman Rourke were on the road but recalled to the Deans Marsh / Lorne fire.

The fire crossed Settlement Road at 3.08 pm and was burning down the edge of Amblers Lane. It had travelled 1.6 km from the origin in less than 30 minutes. And after an hour it had travelled over 10 km as spot fires leapfrogged across the parched landscape.

The MAFFS and FCV birddog aircraft flown by Conrad Wood were dispatched together with the NSCA Bell 212 helicopter carrying its 1700-litre bucket. The MAFFS made two drops, one at East Trentham and the other at Coimadai which were instrumental in saving houses but had minimal effect in controlling the fast-moving fire edge.

A large fire south of Trentham at Pyrete in September 1980, together with the recent Greendale fire a few weeks earlier on 8 January 1983 fortunately slowed the southerly run of the head fire.

If the fire hadn’t not stopped it’s run in the State forest, there was real potential to burn south across another 15 km of open farmland to the outskirts of Melton. This would have created even greater havoc with the wind change later in the evening, and potentially threatened major towns of Gisborne and Sunbury.

A FCV helicopter with Assistant District Forester from Trentham, John Nankervis, and fire research officer, Richard Rawson was in the air by 5.00 pm to map the two flanks of the fire between its origin at James Lane and O’Brien’s Road.

They proceeded to the Pyrete forest where several spot fires were developing at Goodman Creek, Coimadai Creek, Antimony Mine Road and Djerriwarrh Reservoir. They reported flame heights 3 to 10 m along the easterly flank near Firth Road but fireballs reaching up to 100 m into the air. It was too dangerous to deploy crews and machinery.

By 5.40 pm, the FCV crew and eleven CFA tankers working down western flank of Amblers Lane were damping down the flames and doing some cautious back burning.

Shortly after at 6.29 pm it was reported the eastern flank had crossed Firth Road on a front of about 3 km wide.

The FCV helicopter returned to Trentham at 6.30 pm with a map of the fire edge and there was a critical strategy meeting with the CFA.

The expected wind change was being tracked by FCV fire towers and the BOM as it moved across the State. It hit Framlingham near Warrnambool at 5.58 pm and Lorne later at 6.40 pm bringing gale force south west winds.

Richard Rawson and Phillip Norman then went to check on the progress of the eastern flank. They proceeded to Ashbourne Road and Chambers Lane to warn local property owners of the potential spread of the fire with the expected wind change. The police were also warning people of the danger. There were no CFA tankers nearby and Richard requested FVC tankers be sent.

The adequacy and timing of the warnings came into sharp focus during the subsequent coronial hearings.

Meanwhile, Woodend Shire engineer John Randles was directing graders to build firebreaks on the south side of Ashbourne Road.

At 7.00 pm the CFA established a Command HQ at Gisborne and the District Forester from Daylesford, David Patterson, was dispatched via Trentham as the FCV Liaison Officer arriving at 8.00 pm.

Two large FCV bulldozers commenced works around 7.44 pm with a Beauford D6 on Ambles Lanes and the Daylesford Komatsu 65A (the same one from Greendale) along the eastern flank. They were supported by tankers and several Slip-On-Units. Prior to the wind change flame heights were about 2 m and about 800 m of trail had been constructed and held.

At 8.45 pm the wind, which had been blowing from the north west, dropped and there was a lull of 2-3 minutes. The fire stalled for a while, but then the furious south-west wind change hit the fireground. Peak winds were recorded at nearby Tullamarine airport at 9.00 pm of up to 100 km/hr.

The uncontrolled eastern flank of the fire, about 8 km wide, was immediately and catastrophically lost with the wind change and rapidly advanced in a north easterly direction with massive spotting and crowning activity.

Richard Rawson and Phillip Norman were caught by the sudden wind change. They retreated to a nearby house in Bourke Court for safety and worked with the owners dousing spot fires inside the roof. Eight houses were saved but four were lost.

All FCV crew and equipment scattered in the fire mayhem and regrouped at O’Connell’s Corner. The focus then shifted to saving life and property. The two FCV dozers concentrated on building control lines around houses at the edge of the forest and works proceeded throughout the night.

The Rate of Spread (ROS) on the wind change had increased to about 15 km/hr with massive long-distance spotting ahead of the fire front. Movement of aircraft, fire trucks and frightened people trying to evacuate was hampered by the thick smoke.

Flame heights were 2 to 3 times the tree heights creating crown fires and extensive spot fires well ahead of the fire front.

Both John Nankervis from the FCV and John Nicholson from the CFA had jointly believed, based on previous experience, that the wind would subside shortly after the change and the fire would stop short of the four-lane Calder Highway, or Black Forest Drive.

But the wind that Ash Wednesday evening was unrelenting.

About an hour after the wind change the fire had travelled 10 km, and FCV forester David Francis reported at 9.50 pm that it had crossed the Calder Highway (the Freeway didn’t exist in 1983), near the intersection of Fingerpost Road. The flames were well above the treetops and there was no chance of a safe frontal attack. David later lost his home at the Macedon nursery.

Mercifully, the fire went through the narrow gap between the major townships of Woodend and Gisborne, otherwise the losses and damage would have undoubtedly been much greater. But Macedon and Mt Macedon settlements weren’t so lucky.

The FCV Macedon Office contacted the caretaker at the Memorial Cross on the summit at 10.00 pm and advised Sam Bigolin and his family to evacuate at once.

Phone lines were jammed, and power was lost in Macedon at 10.18 pm. This was about the time that the fire was passing through the township and roaring up the slopes towards the summit of Mt. Macedon. The power dropped out shortly after at Trentham at 10.30 pm.

At 10.25 pm the fire reached the historic FCV Macedon nursery and a large cryptomeria tree near the office burst into flames and the windows blew in. Small fires were extinguished until the skylight collapsed and the roof caught fire. The District Forester, Ivan Franklin and others in the office were lucky to escape with their lives.

In the mayhem, CFA and FCV firefighters at Macedon abandoned fighting the fire, along with any hope of saving houses, and focused on working with Police to warn residents and help them flee to safety. They were later criticised by the Coroner for poor coordination.

People were very anxious after the earlier blazes around Macedon on 1 February 1983 and more than 2000 evacuated to the Woodend racecourse, as well as public halls in Kyneton and Lancefield.

The historic Macedon Family Hotel, owned by Brian and Garry Nish, survived the blaze.  As many as 300 or so residents, and their animals, sheltered while 16 local CFA volunteers bravely stood outside with hoses to protect the building and the occupants.

Similarly, at Mt. Macedon, one of the few buildings that survived was the Mountain Inn owned by Paul Hanbury and his wife Robyn where people sheltered. The Australian Counter Disaster College building at Mt. Macedon also provided refuge for about 120 fleeing residents.

But all three churches were lost – Holy Trinity Anglican Church and the Uniting Church at Mt. Macedon along with St. Patrick’s Catholic Church at Macedon. Many other public buildings were lost including the Post Office, Golf Club, Primary School and Macedon CFA station.

The fire covered 16 km before being halted, only when it ran out of fuel, and contacted an area burnt earlier near the summit on 1 February 1983.

On Thursday morning 120 soldiers from nearby Puckapunyal Army base arrived at Woodend. They brought two fire tankers and two D8 bulldozers.

Weather conditions at Trentham moderated on Thursday with a temperature of 12 degrees, RH 44%, and mild SW winds of 15-25 km/hr.  

The cooler conditions, and wind from the south, lasted for the next three days. The fire was much easier to extinguish when it reached the open pastures where there wasn’t much fuel.

Amid the blackened devastation, consolidating control lines, burning out fuels, patrol and blacking out continued for several days.

Before the wind change about 20% of the forest was burnt by crown fire but following the change on the evening of Ash Wednesday this increased to about 80%. Ground fuels and vegetation in the forest were completely obliterated, although the pattern was patchy in the grassland and grazed paddocks where there wasn’t much fuel.

It took a while for the gravity of the losses to sink in…  and then the media arrived.

The East Trentham / Macedon fire burnt 29,500 ha of both public and private land, but it was virtually all within the FCV’s Fire Protected Area (FPA).

Seven people died, many while trying to flee the flames, and hundreds were treated for burns and smoke inhalation at local hospitals. Fallen trees had blocked the road.

While the figures vary, some 628 homes at Mount Macedon, Bullengarook and Woodend, along with four sawmills were lost. Nearly 90% of the wooden sleepers on 28 km of railway line between Woodend and Gisborne were burnt.

Some 1286 ha of FCV pine plantation and 51 ha of pine seed orchard was burnt. A major timber salvage program followed with many of the logs stored in water to stop deterioration.

Many historic homes and magnificent English style gardens were lost. But after the fires a team with a small Lucas sawmill managed to salvage many of the older trees such as Oaks and Elms and cut them into fine timber for furniture.

Photo of Macedon township from the Herald and Weekly Times Supplement – 1983
Powerlines rubbing against a tree on O’Connell’s Road at East Trentham started the fire. Source: CFA
Spot fires near New Gisborne. Source: State of Fire.
Corner of Main Road and Carrington Street Macedon. Petrol was 42.9 cents per litre. Source: CFA
Map of Trentham fire #22 (Ash Wednesday) and how it fitted into the Greendale fire of 8 January and the Macedon fire of 1 February. The effect of an earlier bushfire in September 1980 can also be seen. Source: PROV
The East Trentham bushfire was slowed by an earlier bushfire Greendale fire in January 1983but leapt over it and then hit the previous fire at Pyrete in September 1980. Spot fires show it kept going towards the south until the wind change. Times and control lines from the 1983 fire can be seen. Had the fire not stopped in the State forest there was potential to travel another 15 km across open farmland to Melton. This would have created even greater havoc with the wind change later in the evening, and potentially threatened major towns of Gisborne and Sunbury. Source: PROV.

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