Ash Wednesday 1983 – Otways.

A day of Total Fire Ban (TFB) was declared for Victoria at 06.30 am on Ash Wednesday, 16 February 1983.

Forests Commission Victoria (FCV) firetowers at Peters Hill, Crowes and Mt. Cowley were up early from 09.00 am in expectation of a bad day, and all crews were in their depots on standby.

Under provisions of the Forest Act (1958) the State forest was legally closed to timber harvesting and haulage contractors from midday.

Richard Stone was the District Forester at Geelong, while Malcolm McDougall was the DFO at Forrest. There were also FCV depots at Lorne, You Yangs, Apollo Bay, Anglesea and Gellibrand.

At 2.00 pm the Crowes firetower near Lavers Hill reported a temperature of 37.5 degrees, wind 60-90 km/hr from the north to north west and a RH at a very low 9%. Visibility was poor due to dust and smoke from a major fire to the west at Framlingham.

A taskforce led by FCV overseer Norman Rourke, with a tanker and two Slip-On-Units, were preparing to leave Forrest for the East Trentham fire.

The Otways fire #22 started at 2:45 pm in grassland on the Deans Marsh to Birregurra Road, near a cutting of the disused railway line to Forrest, about 150 metres to the west of Trotter’s sawmill. It was reported by a passing motorist to the CFA at 2.50 pm and the cause was unknown.

The FFDI exceeded 100, or extreme.

The FCV at Geelong was advised at 3.10 pm, and the office at Forrest 10 minutes later at 3.20 pm. The FCV was therefore unable to assist the Deans Marsh CFA in the critical first attack.

The fire was nearly controlled by the CFA in its early stages but raced upslope and reached Valhalla, 5.5 km away, at 3.30 pm.  

At 3.45 pm the fire reached the State forest boundary with high fuel loads and thick dry forest of messmate with about 20 tonnes/ha, and in the mountain ash forest it reached up to 30-35 tonnes per hectare. Fire intensity within the forest increased dramatically with crowning and spot fires.

By 3.55 pm the fire had developed an unstoppable momentum and was spotting up to 10 km ahead of the main front.

Two spot fires were reported at Haines Ridge, while five minutes later spots were igniting on the road between Benwerrin and Lorne.

At 4.00 pm the fire had grown to over 1000 ha and FCV had dispatched 10 tankers, 2 dozers and 45 firefighters. The CFA had 10 tankers and about 50 firefighters. As was customary at the time, the FCV worked in the bush while the CFA focussed on private farmland and around houses.

By 4.15 pm the fire was at Little Erskine River and by 4.18 pm it had reached Reedy Creek on the coast, north east of Lorne.

More equipment was being sought and the crews which had been dispatched earlier to East Trentham were recalled. A FCV helicopter and MAFFS firebomber was requested. Forester Tony Bartlett arrived near Pennyroyal with the Gellibrand FCV crews at 4.25 pm and saved houses owned by the Marchant and Pope families.

The fire had also been reported to the small FCV depot at Lorne and forester Phillip Evans dispatched the crew and headed north to the main ridge of the Otway Range at Benwerrin to see what was happening.

Phil waved down police motorcyclist, Snr Constable Steve Williams, who happened to be on his way to Colac and advised him of the impending danger ahead. Rather than returning to Lorne, Williams told Phil to stop anyone else and then rode headlong towards the fire to warn people. But a Telecom employee Ilia John Mieria refused to stop for Phil and the policeman later tried to turn him back to Lorne and through the flames to safety, but Mieria was killed when his 4WD was engulfed. He was the first of three fatalities that day.

Spot fires then appeared in the bush around Phil and immediately realising the gravity of the situation he turned around the FCV crew, the tanker and the FAD and skedaddled back to Lorne. The next manic 48 hours were spent working with the CFA to protect lives and property in the town.

The Rate of Spread (ROS) of the main ground fire front over the grass during its initial hour had been as high as 22 km/hr, while in the forest it averaged 7 km/hr.

It was not possible to outrun it. Spot fires simply leapfrogged across the parched landscape and there often seemed to be no distinct fire front, but instead hundreds of rapidly developing spot fires that eventually joined.

By 4.30 pm houses in Lorne North in Dorman Street were under threat and most of the forest on the Lorne to Deans Marsh Road was burning fiercely.

The houses in Dorman Street were shielded from the main fire to some extent by an area of State forest which had been fuel reduction burnt in 1981-82. But spot fires in the overgrown scrub around some houses and vacant blocks resulted in extensive house loss. Houses surrounded by tidy gardens often survived.

The golf course and cemetery to the north of Lorne was very effective at providing clear access and reducing fire behaviour, which also saved many houses.

For the next 90 minutes the wind continued strongly from the northwest, and by 6.00 pm the fire had reached Eastern View, the Devil’s Elbow and Cinema Point on the Great Ocean Road.

And by 6.30 pm, efforts to control the fire had all but been abandoned, and the focus was on saving lives and property.  But over 30 houses were still incinerated in North Lorne.

The situation stabilised for a while when the fire hit the coast and the wind direction remained steady. But then at 6.40 pm a violent wind change hit the fire from the southwest with gusts up to 160 km/hr.

With the wind change, the entire 15 km of the eastern flank suddenly exploded and transformed into a massive crown fire heading north east along the coast towards Aireys Inlet and Anglesea, consuming everything in its path. The ROS increased to about 10 km/hr.

The popular holiday township of Lorne became effectively isolated when the Grassy Creek Bridge burnt down at 7.03 pm so emergency crews and police from Geelong were unable to get through. The main road north to Deans Marsh was also ablaze. Many retreated to the safety of the beach. Patrons at the Lorne Hotel could only sit and watch in awe while sipping a cold beer from the rooftop bar.

The western edge of the fire near Lorne was swept back into the main fire with the wind change which helped consolidate the boundary and save part of the town. But a lot of backburning was needed in the subsequent days

The fire swept along the coast and hit Moggs Creek and Fairhaven with a blizzard of burning embers around 7:20 pm.

The deeply dissected landscape with gullies and ridges, which run perpendicular to the coastline, restricted access for dozers and firefighting vehicles.

Large sheets of corrugated roofing iron flew through the air, along with other debris from burning houses. Dead animals, especially kangaroos and snakes, littered the beach.

Thousands tried to flee bumper-to-bumper along the Great Ocean Road. It was a miracle there wasn’t a car accident in the exodus. Anglesea was evacuated ahead of the flames. Some found shelter on the beach. CFA trucks were also forced to retreat.

By 7.30 pm the fire had spotted into Aireys Inlet, and it developed quickly, destroying 217 houses, the CFA shed and the Hotel. The coastal heathland was severely burnt but the lighthouse was miraculously spared.

The historic Major McCormack Memorial Arch and the mature cypress trees on the beach side of the Great Ocean Road at Eastern View were also lost.

At 8.00 pm the fire reached Urquhart Bluff and began spotting into Anglesea and Eumeralla Scout camp above the township, where its iconic wooden entry gate was burnt.

At 9.25 pm the Police and CFA evacuated the Bells Beach and Jan Juc areas.

By 9.30 pm the main ground fire had reached the heathland on the outskirts of Anglesea at Odonohue Road and the Telecom tower on Harvey Street, while at midnight a spot fire was reported between Point Addis and Bells Beach.

FCV Overseer from Anglesea, Pat Denham with the crew, tanker, FAD and vehicles worked frantically alongside the CFA protecting towns and saving houses along the coast. About 130 were lost in Anglesea.

The FCV office and depot at Lorne survived, but the office in Camp Road at Anglesea, which sat on the site of the old ‘Norsewood’ pine nursery established by the Commission in 1923 was destroyed.

The fire was eventually contained after its deadly rampage ended in the Forest Road – Jarosite Road area around 11.00 pm on Wednesday night.

By dawn on Thursday 17 February, the fire had subsided along the coast and was active in only a few places.  

About 100 personnel from the Army and Airforce arrived on Thursday under Stage 3 of the State Disaster Plan (DISPLAN).

However, by late Friday the fire was still moving inland towards Wensleydale and Moriac burning out a huge triangle of 20,000 ha.

A firebreak, 4 kilometres long and 50 metres wide, was carved through a pine plantation owned by Smorgons. Hundreds of trees were felled to build the break with dozers working a 15-hour shift to finish it. An epic backburn began at 01.00 am on Saturday morning and was completed by daybreak, with FCV forester John Kellas in charge.

It’s worth noting there were major radio communication troubles between the contract bulldozers, the CFA, the FCV, the Army and RAAF during the fires which hampered the operation. Radio communications was a major feature of the subsequent inquiries.

While there was little active fire remaining on the coast, weeks of work remained for FCV crews to backburn north west of Lorne, blacking out and patrolling through the bush in the State forest.

Three people were killed, and some 729 houses burnt, and other buildings lost, including at least 62 in Lorne, while 53 cattle and 2,782 sheep were killed.

Some 41,300 hectares were incinerated, including large areas of State forest, FCV and private pine plantations.  Nearly 70% of the fire was in the FCVs Fire Protected Area (FPA). The Otway National Park wasn’t declared until 2004.

The last major bushfires in the Otway Ranges were in 1939, while fires in 1967-68 were probably the most recent, so fuel loads had accumulated in the forest.

However, the most significant fire hazards were concentrated along the coastal strip with very high fuel loads in and around seaside holiday towns, particularly on the fringes.

Fuel reduction on public land had been limited because of the difficulty of burning near houses in thick coastal t-tree scrub. Very little work had been carried out by residents on adjoining private land either.

There were some strategic burning strips around townships such as Lorne and Anglesea as well as the pine plantations. These breaks proved mostly ineffective under the extreme fire conditions, although reduced spotting was reported near Paddy’s Swamp due to some burning 3 years earlier. CFA burning around the Alcoa lease area near Anglesea was effective at reducing the fire intensity.

The arson squad later investigated the Otways Fire #22, and despite various rumours, there was no evidence that the Trotter’s sawmill at Deans Marsh had caused it. The mill was about 0.5 km outside the Fire Protected Area (FPA) and was destroyed in the fire at about 4.10 pm.

The ferocity of the fires is illustrated by:

  1. Near Fairhaven, in a very exposed site burnt by bushfire in October 1981, there were extensive areas of vegetation scorched up to 100 m away from the main fire edge.
  2. A fire tornado near Moggs Creek cut an 800 m swathe through the forest, and mature red ironbark trees up to 15 m tall were uprooted or snapped off.
  3. Windstorms with gusts more than 100 km/hr occurred after the wind change. Several houses lost roofs, trees were smashed, and some outbuildings disintegrated while roofing iron and burning mattresses were seen flying through the air.

There was more than a touch of irony near Lorne a few weeks later as the Anglesea Country Roads Board (CRB) crew worked in the pouring rain to replace a temporary causeway at Grassy Creek on the Great Ocean Road.

The causeway was built a few days after the Ash Wednesday bushfires destroyed the wooden bridge, at a time when the creek bed was all but dry.

Late on Monday 21 March the new causeway was washed away by floodwaters caused by heavy rain across the Otway ranges. Rising floodwaters and a series of landslips once again isolated Lorne, while at the Cumberland River 5 km south of the township, caravans were swept out to sea.

Research Report 20.pdf (ffm.vic.gov.au)

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