Ash Wednesday 1983 – Belgrave / Upper Beaconsfield.

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.

Source: The Age Newspaper.
The northern entry to Critchley Parker Junior Reserve. Photo: Upper Beaconsfield CFA
Photo: Peter McHugh
This photo was taken on 14th February 1983 when the Narre Warren CFA received a new fire truck. Two days later, 6 members in the photo, plus an additional firefighter tragically, lost their lives on this truck battling the Ash Wednesday bushfires in Upper Beaconsfield. Photo: Narre Warren CFA
Photo: Peter McHugh

6 thoughts on “Ash Wednesday 1983 – Belgrave / Upper Beaconsfield.

  1. My childhood home “Wildfell” was above the Critchley Parker Reserve. The second photo shows the top of the hill where it stood with only a few walls remaining. A once fabulous innovative house, one of the earliest designs by Roy Grounds and Geoffrey Merton.
    My parents had sold and moved to Berwick thankfully as my father would not have survived. How he sobbed when he went back.
    We lost many friends in Ash Wednesday both in Upper Beaconsfield and Mt Macedon.
    Most girls growing up there rode horses and knew the bush, tracks and creek crossings backwards. Tragically those firies should never have attempted that track – there was no way a truck could turn around.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My name is Colin Edwards, on Ash Wednesday I was a lieutenant of the Beaconsfield Rural CFA Brigade and a Deputy Group Officer of the Berwick/Pakenham fire brigades group in CFA region 8.

    I was heavily involved with the southern part of the fire and my recollection suggests that there are a number of inaccurate statements in your post.
    If you wish to record history accurately please contact me.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Corrections for the above post
    1. The fire front did not cross the Princes Highway. The trucks under my directions stopped the southern bound fire about 300 metres north of the highway

    2. There were 2 small spot fires that ignited south of the railway about 4 – 4.30. These spots were extinguished by local trucks from Officer, Toomuc Valley & Pakenham Upper. The spots did not cross the road to the south.
    3. I don’t believe the Pole Factory near the Officer rail station was involved in Ash Wednesday fire. If it was, I most certainly didn’t allocate any resources to contain and extinguish it.

    4. The railway line was not damaged in anyway by fire on this day. I detailed several trucks to use the railway as a second line of defence should we not be able to halt the fire at the highway.
    I can’t recall with certainty, but I think I asked for all rail traffic to be halted.

    5. You mention people from south of Emerald Road being evacuated to the Cardinia Park hotel, there were residents from east of the hotel evacuated to there.
    Please check the map and you will see that Emerald road runs North/South, so people cannot live south of the Cardy.
    The fire crossed Emerald Road between the pub and Quamby Road to the north and according to my mates in the Beaconsfield fire brigade, it was travelling faster than the fire truck and about 3-500 metres wide front.

    6. We were informed by CFA head office, around 6pm, that a wild Southwest change would reach us about midnight. We thought we had 6 hours to black out the eastern flank but at 9pm we detected an unusual calmness and guessed this was the change coming. All trucks under my directions were instructed to retreat to the highway as quickly as possible.
    We didn’t have the time we were lead to believe we should’ve had to black out any further north than Brown Road and the map clearly shows the destruction starting north of Browns Road.

    7. Where did you get the information about a Water train.
    Upper Beaconsfield had reticulated water supply pumped from the reservoir on O’ Neil’s road ,forgot that therecently installed by the SRWSC, except they forgot that an early casualty in any major fire is the loss of electricity, no diesel backup was installed.
    The ridiculous high water rates were slashed by about 2/3rds shortly after the fire.

    More reticulated ( non pumped ) water was available from a standpipe on Emerald Road just south of Guys Hill and further access to hydrants at Beaconsfield, Officer and Berwick. All a lot closer to the fireground than the Berwick railway station.
    Other available supplies in Upper Beaconsfield were local dams and swimming pools. My own pool was emptied by fire trucks along St George’s Road.
    My home, which escaped destruction, was about 500 metres from where Panton Hill and Narre Warren fire trucks were located.

    Why would anyone think a Water Train was a good idea. I don’t believe it happened.

    I handed control of the southern part of the fire back to the Officer brigade about 2am and went to Upper Beaconsfield to help with local knowledge.

    I truly hope that you will ammend your story to reflect the truth, so that history is recorded accurately .

    I was a Lieutenant of the Beaconsfield CFA Brigade and a Deputy Group Officer with the Berwick/Pakenham Fire Brigade Group in CFA Region 8 at the time of this event. I lived in Upper Beaconsfield from 1972 until 1985.

    All the above facts should be able to be verified from CFA records. The forestry department was not involved in the southern part of this fire.

    Colin Edwards


  4. Colin

    I don’t doubt your role in the CFA and that these are your true recollections. But I have checked with other senior FCV and CFA sources, official documents tendered to the coroner and newspapers which reveals another story

    1 & 2 & 4. The fire crossed both the Princes Highway and the railway line. Several CFA maps made soon after the fire confirm this. They may have been spot fires but the fire travelled to the south.
    3. Eyewitnesses confirm a small fire at the pole treatment plant on Ash Wednesday. Just because you were not aware of it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.
    4. Vic Railways closed the track until it was checked for wooden sleeper damage. I dont know if there was any but they needed to check before using the line again.
    5. I can’t offer comment on this. I got this statement from newspapers reports (which I admit can be wrong)
    6. The wind change was being tracked as it moved across the state. FCV staff knew it was due around 9.00 pm. It reached Framlingham near Warrnambool at 5.58pm, Lorne on the coast at 6.40pm, East Trentham at 8.45pm, Cockatoo at 9.05 pm and Warburton at 9.15pm. I don’t know what CFA crews were told. FCV witness statements confirm this.
    7. Under the DISPLAN arrangments CFA HQ asked Vic Rail to send water trains to Macedon, Belgrave and Packenham. Two senior CFA Regional Officers confirms this. Remember 1982 was a drought and water supplies were scarce. I can’t confirm if the water was used but the trains were definitely sent. A train driver also confirms this.

    Finally. The Forests Commission were deployed to this fire. Overseer Bob Ferres from Gembrook was in charge before being moved to Cockatoo. There were several FCV tankers and I know the drivers of two of them. The CFA and FCV operated on different radio channels so you may not have been aware. Signed police witness statements from a number of staff confirm this. To say otherwise is not only wrong but is an insult.

    I’m prepared to leave your comment stand because its what you remember but Im not willing to adjust the story based solely on your recollections after 40 years.


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