On Ash Wednesday 16 February 1983, at 3.24 pm, a bushfire started on Birds Land near Mount Morton Road at Belgrave Heights.
There had been concerns expressed in the months before the fire about the fuel loads by the CFA to the local Sherbrooke council which owned the block.
The temperature at 2.00 pm at Kallista was 40.5 degrees, the Relative Humidity was 14% with wind from the north at 25 km/hr. The fine fuel moisture content was estimated to be an extremely low 9% and the Drought Index was 383. Unsurprisingly, the Forest Fire Danger Index (FFDI) was extreme.
The fire was reported to the CFA at Belgrave by a local resident whose property at Tremont overlooked the area. Due to an incorrect assessment of the location given to the CFA there was some delay in locating the seat of the fire.
The Forests Commission Victoria (FCV) tower at Dunn’s Hill picked up the smoke at 3.30 pm and notified the Kallista office where Frank May was the District Forester. Bob Ferres, Overseer from Gembrook, was appointed Fireboss.
It’s unclear how the fire started, but most suspect arson.
The fire was fanned by the hot northerly winds and quickly headed towards Harkaway, Narre Warren East, and Guys Hill.
Forests Commission and National Parks Service (NPS) crews from Kallista, Ferntree Gully, Sherbrook, Olinda and Gembrook were immediately deployed at 3.35 pm, with more at 3.50 pm to join a large contingent of CFA crews. Many District crew were away at the Cann River fires but other FCV districts from Central Division came.
Within four minutes houses were burning in Mount Morton Road, and by 4.00 pm, the fire had crossed the Belgrave-Hallam Road. Some spot fires were recorded 30 km ahead of the main front.
The estimated size of the fire at 4.20 pm was 60 hectares.
It was a manic and confused afternoon. Radio channels were choked, and communications were poor. It’s fair to say that the FCV, NPS, CFA and Victoria Police, which all operated independently on separate radios and with different command arrangements were overwhelmed.
In many cases, residents had to fend for themselves as the fires broke communications, cut off escape routes and severed electricity, telephones and water supplies.
The situation was made worse because there seemed to be no distinct fire front, but instead hundreds of rapidly developing spot fires that eventually joined. The average Rate of Spread (ROS) in the forest fuels was estimated to be about 5km/hr. It was much faster on the grass.
About 30 schoolchildren were evacuated from the Lutheran Christian Family Centre near Bartley Road, Belgrave Heights, soon after the fire started. They were taken to the Fern tree Gully Technical School. Other people were taken to the Belgrave South Primary School.
At 5.30 pm the fire was spreading against the wind towards the Shire Offices in Glenfern Road and the FCV Egg Rock Tower north of Gembrook reported the fire extending as far south as Harkaway.
A spot fire jumped the Princes Highway at Pink Hill near Beaconsfield around 5.30, and by 6.30, the Koppers pine treatment plant at the Officer railway station was fully ablaze with flames at least 100 feet high.
Residents south of the Emerald-Beaconsfield Road near the Cardinia Park Hotel were evacuated. The blaze came within 500 metres of the hotel, which near Beaconsfield.
The FCV Bedford Tankers, as well those with the CFA, were experiencing severe problems with petrol vaporisation. One FCV tanker became stuck between two houses, and it was only by the use of the pumps that the house and tanker were saved.
The weather forecast issued at 6.00 pm by the BOM was for a wind change of 60-70 km/hr from the southwest to arrive in Melbourne around 9.00 pm.
To make matters worse, other bushfires started on State forest near Warburton at 7.20 pm and moments later at Cockatoo at 7.28 pm, which split the remaining FCV and CFA resources.
The FCV resources with Bob Ferres at Beaconsfield were redirected to a new fire in the Wright State forest at Cockatoo at 7.55 pm. Bob met with Upper Beaconsfield CFA Captain Eric Bumstead at Barnes Paddock to discuss the change in deployment before they departed.
Forests Commission crews from Noojee were also requested to go to Gembrook in anticipation of the wind change, but they never arrived because of the outbreaks of the Warburton fire.
Around 8.50 pm that evening, the fire had crossed the Princes Highway near Officer, when a dry blustery south westerly wind change of about 110 km/hr hit the Upper Beaconsfield area.
And with the violent wind change, the entire eastern flank was lost, and the fire roared up from Guys Hill and wreaked havoc through Upper Beaconsfield, tragically taking many lives and properties along the way.
Twelve CFA firefighters, in trucks from Narre Warren and Panton Hill, also lost their lives on a narrow bush track at the Critchley Parker Junior Reserve when the fire overran them.
Prior to the wind change, Forests Commission tankers and crews had been specifically instructed by FCV Overseer Bob Ferres not to leave the relative safety of wider roads, where they could turn around, and to “keep one foot in the black” – meaning – be able to quickly retreat to burnt ground.
There were widespread power cuts and phone line to the Dandenong Ranges, Gembrook and Yarra valley with the strong winds which was not restored until Thursday morning. The loss of power and telecommunications had a major effect on the FCV offices trying to control the fires. It took some hours to activate dedicated DISPLAN lines. Communication with Victoria Police at D24 was difficult. Around 02.00 am on Thursday there was a light sprinkling of rain upon the blackened fireground.
The bushfire eventually stopped by the southern shore of the MMBW’s Cardinia Reservoir and extended nearly as far as Gembrook.
The Victorian Railways transported water in special trains to Berwick to fill CFA tankers and repaired wooden sleepers damaged between Berwick and Packenham.
And by about 04.30 am on Thursday the fire front had all but stopped. Over its 12-hour rampage a total of 9200 ha was burnt, 21 people died and 230 homes were lost.
Areas of State forest within the Fire Protected Area (FPA) burnt in Fire #18 include Critchley Parker Junior Reserve and Guys Hill on the banks of Cardinia creek and some MMBW land around Cardinia Reservoir.