1301.0 - Year Book Australia, 2004  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 27/02/2004   
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Contents >> Environment >> Bushfires

The bushfires which occurred at the end of 2002 and beginning of 2003 were among the most protracted and extensive experienced since European settlement of Australia. Fires burnt large tracts of land throughout Australia, caused damage to property, killed livestock and caused the loss of lives.

Causes of bushfires

Data collected between 1976-77 and 1995-96 on the causes of bushfires on public land in Victoria shows that lightning strikes lead to the highest number of fires each year, followed by fires that are deliberately lit, those that escape from agricultural burning, and escapes from campfires (table 24.33). Similarly, the majority of area burnt in Victoria over the 20 year sample period, was initiated by lightning, followed by public utilities (e.g. from power lines), and deliberately lit fires.

24.33 CAUSES OF BUSHFIRES IN VICTORIA - 1976-77 to 1995-96

Average no. of fires
each year
Proportion of
total fires
Average area
Proportion of total
area burnt
Fire cause

Cause unknown(a)
Prescribed burn escapes(c)
Public utilities(d)

(a) Includes fires where investigators could not ascertain the cause, as well as fires where the cause was not investigated.
(b) Includes causes like: burning houses, burning buildings and fireworks.
(c) Management of parks and forests includes the use of planned fires for a variety of purposes such as natural fuel management and the maintenance of flora and fauna habitat. Sometimes these fires burn beyond the planned perimeter.
(d) Includes ignitions from trains and power transmission.
(e) All figures are rounded; hence may not add up to column totals.
Source: DSE 2003a.

Past major bushfires

Bushfires have been part of the Australian environment since before human settlement of the continent. Some Australian flora and fauna has evolved to coexist with bushfires, and in the case of eucalypt forest, fire forms an integral part of its regeneration cycle. Aboriginal arrival to Australia resulted in an increased frequency in the incidence of bushfires, a pattern which was replicated upon European settlement (Florence 1996).

The areas which experience the most severe bushfires usually occur in the south-eastern corner of Australia, south of a line from Sydney to Adelaide. This is because the most severe fire weather (hot, dry, strong winds) generally occurs in this part of the country. In association with this climatic influence, the south eastern areas of mainland Australia, Tasmania, and the south western corner of Western Australia also produce the tallest forests and heavy fuel loads. When these usually wet forests dry out the heavy fuel loads produce the most intense and devastating bushfires (Year Book Australia 1995 (1301.0)).

Bushfires caused significant damage in the 19th and 20th centuries. Vast areas of grassland and forest have been burnt, large numbers of livestock were killed, houses and other buildings were destroyed and many human lives were taken. Several of the fires are etched on the memories of Australians, despite the passing of the years.

The 'Black Thursday' fires of 6 February 1851 in Victoria, burnt the largest area (approximately 5 million ha) in European-recorded history and killed more than one million sheep and thousands of cattle as well as taking the lives of 12 people (CFA 2003a; DSE 2003b). On 'Red Tuesday', 1 February 1898 in Victoria 260,000 ha were burnt, 12 people were killed and 2000 buildings were destroyed (DSE 2003b).

Between December 1938 to January 1939, 1.5-2.0 million ha were burnt, 71 people were killed and over 1000 homes destroyed in Victoria (DSE 2003b, 2003c). The most devastation occurred on 'Black Friday', 13 January 1939, when strong northerly winds intensified fires burning in almost every part of the state. Townships were destroyed and others badly damaged. So much ash and smoke was generated that ash fell as far away as New Zealand (DSE 2003c). Five years later in 1944, bushfires in Victoria burnt an estimated one million ha, killed between 15 and 20 people and destroyed more than 500 houses (DSE 2003b).

The 'Ash Wednesday' fires of 16 February 1983 caused severe damage in Victoria and South Australia. In Victoria, 210,000 ha were burnt, 2,080 houses destroyed, more than 27,000 stock lost and 47 people lost their lives (CFA 2003a; DSE 2003b, 2003d). Property-related damage was estimated at over $200m and more than 16,000 fire fighters, 1,000 police and 500 defence personnel fought the fires in Victoria. In South Australia, 208,000 ha were burnt, 383 houses were destroyed, 28 people were killed and property-related damage was estimated to be more than $200m (DSE 2003d).

Serious bushfires occurred in New South Wales in 1951-52, 1968-69, 1984-85 and 1993-94. In 1968-69 over one million ha were burnt and three people were killed (Linacre & Hobbs 1977; RFS 2003a). In 1984-85, 3.5 million ha were burnt, four lives were lost, 40,000 livestock were killed and $40m damage to property was caused (RFS 2003a). In 1993-94, bushfires burnt 800,000 ha, destroyed 287 residential properties and other premises and killed four people (Year Book Australia 1995 (1301.0)). At the height of the 1993-94 fires, over 20,000 firefighters were deployed (RFS 2003a).

Other states have also suffered serious bushfires. For example, Tasmania suffered their worst bushfires on 'Black Tuesday' 7 February 1967 when 110 fires that were within a 40 kilometre radius of Hobart converged during a seven-hour period, fanned by extreme weather conditions. Approximately 264,000 ha were burnt, 1,700 houses destroyed and 61 people were killed (Year Book Australia 1995 (1301.0)). Western Australia experienced serious bushfires during 1960-61 when 359,000 ha were burnt (Linacre & Hobbs 1977).

The Northern Territory experiences fires annually on a scale which dwarfs those in southern Australia. For example, in 1974-75, following lush vegetation growth due to heavy rainfall in the previous two years, over 117 million ha or 15% of the total land area of the continent was burnt in central Australia during the fire season (Year Book Australia 1995 (1301.0)). Extensive fires occurred in the Northern Territory in the 1920s, 50s and mid-70s. A number of the fires were caused by lightning strikes associated with seasonal change (Bushfires Council of the Northern Territory 2003). These fires are part of the natural cycle and also a tradition in Aboriginal people of the region. Up to 50% of the northern Australian landscape is burnt each year, and most areas are burnt at least once in every three years (Anderson 1999).

When considering fire statistics, fires with larger areas do not necessarily translate into more serious impacts on human settlements. For example, of all the fires that occurred during January 1994 in New South Wales, one of the most damaging was one of the smallest, burning just 476 ha but destroying 101 houses. This was more than half of the total houses lost in New South Wales during that bushfire emergency period.

The 2002-03 bushfire season

Bushfires wreaked havoc in south eastern Australia during the spring and summer of 2002-03 (table 24.34). The period leading up to this was characterised by severe rainfall deficiencies and high temperatures (see Drought). The fires devastated sensitive alpine ecosystems, seriously threatened major urban centres and caused significant financial losses. The location of fires in New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and alpine Victoria is depicted in map 24.35. Some significant fires, for example, which burnt in Victoria, like the Big Desert fire that burnt 181,400 ha in north west Victoria in December 2002 (DSE 2003e), are not included.

There are some difficulties when collecting information relating to bushfires. In most states and territories several agencies pool their resources to fight bushfires, and in some cases individual agencies report information relating specifically to their fire fighting efforts. In other cases an agency will report more comprehensive information incorporating other organisations. The data that is reported in this article is the most comprehensive and contemporary available, and generally the data reported from one agency per state was used to reduce duplication. If data from two agencies is available concerning the same aspect (e.g. in Victoria) a range has been reported.


Bushfires attended by
relevant agency(a)
Area burnt
Fatalities resulting
from a bushfire
Stock lost
'000 ha

New South Wales(b)
South Australia
Western Australia
Northern Territory(e)
Australian Capital Territory

(a) The definition of a bushfire may differ between states. However, the most reliable and contemporary information was reported.
(b) NSW data applies to the period from 1 July 2002 to 28 February 2003.
(c) One Victorian firefighter died as a result of a flash flood while returning from fighting a fire.
(d) Houses that were damaged or destroyed.
(e) NT data applies to the period from August to November 2002.
Source: AFAC 2002; CALM 2003; CFA 2003b; DSE 2003f, 2003g, 2003j; EPA & QPWS 2002; McLeod 2003 and Brinkworth, Chuter, Dowling and Kirk pers.comm.


Map - 24.35 Burnt area in New South Wales, Australian Capital Territory, Tasmania and alpine Victoria - 2002-03

Source: NSW Rural Fire Service; Department of Sustainability and Environment and Forestry Tasmania.

New South Wales

In New South Wales, 1.46 million ha were burnt over 151 consecutive days from 27 September 2002 to 24 February 2003 (A. Brinkworth, New South Wales Rural Fires Service 2003, pers. comm. 15 August 2003; RFS 2003b). The fires spread from the north east of the state in September, to the south east in February. New South Wales had the most protracted fire season of all the states and territories (Brinkworth op. cit.).

A Rural Fire Service (RFS) Task Force is a group of five fire trucks and crew, often from different districts, which attends incidents outside their local area for a 72-hour period under the control of a task force commander. Over the duration of the season, 485 task forces were deployed in New South Wales, incorporating 11,836 RFS personnel and involving 43,481 firefighter/days. At the height of the bushfire activity, in one day, 53 multi-agency task forces were deployed. In addition to firefighters, 180 personnel from all agencies were used as Incident Controllers and 6,698 RFS personnel were used in Incident Management Teams (IMT). In total, it is estimated that 35,000 personnel from all agencies were used for fire fighting (including task forces and local resources) and IMTs during the season. Interstate assistance to New South Wales included 1,157 firefighters and IMT personnel (Brinkworth op. cit.).

At the height of the season the RFS used 103 aircraft, and in total 121 carried out 2,098 taskings, comprising approximately 80% rotary wing and 20% fixed wing. Some 86 residential properties were destroyed throughout New South Wales; 28 were substantially damaged. In addition, 33 other major structures, and 188 sheds, garages and outbuildings were destroyed (Brinkworth op. cit.).

Three civilians died during bushfire emergencies. In excess of 400 significant injuries were reported by firefighters; those which required treatment by a health professional - typically heat stress, dehydration, smoke inhalation, cuts, strains and sprains (Brinkworth op. cit.). No firefighter deaths resulted from the bushfire emergencies. However three deaths during time on duty have been recorded since 1 July 2002.


Throughout Victoria, 1.35 million ha were burnt by 843 wildfires on public land during the 2002-03 season (DSE 2003f). The most activity occurred during a 59 day period from the 8 January to 7 March 2003 when the fires were declared 'contained' (DSE 2003g; CFA 2003b). These were the state's largest bushfires since 1939 when more than 1.5 million ha were burnt (DSE 2003h). Most of the area burnt was in national parks and state forest areas, although some 90,000 ha of private land was burnt (DSE 2003i).

Responsibility for the management of rural bushfires in Victoria lies with the Department of Sustainability and Environment, Department of Primary Industries and Country Fire Authority. The former are responsible for managing and protecting state forests, national parks and crown land which cover 7.7 million ha. The CFA is responsible for fire suppression on approximately 15 million ha of private land in rural and regional Victoria, including provincial cities and towns (DSE 2003i). At the peak of the fires there were more than 6,070 personnel fighting the fires from various Victorian state government agencies, CFA volunteers, as well as interstate and international firefighters, 81 four wheel drive fire tankers, and 46 aircraft were used to combat the fires, of which approximately two-thirds of the latter were fixed wing and one-third were helicopters (DSE 2003g).

One DSE firefighter was killed while returning from fighting fires (CFA 2003b; DSE 2003j).

The fires burned: 41-43 homes, destroyed 3 bridges, 200-213 other buildings and structures, and 3,000 km of fencing. Estimates of livestock killed range between 10-11,000 (CFA 2003c; DSE 2003g).


In Queensland, information about all vegetation fires, large or small is stored either on the Rural, or Urban Incident Databases depending on the fire locality. Because there is scope for duplication of information when rural and urban fire crews attend the same fires, the Rural Incident Database information has been used for Queensland. As the submission of incident reports by rural brigades is not complete, the extent of their work may be underestimated (K. Kirk, Queensland Fire and Rescue Service, 2003, pers. comm. 8 August 2003).

There were 2,618 fires in Queensland from July 2002 until June 2003 covering over one million ha. The largest fire burnt an area of 200,000 ha (Kirk op. cit.).

South Australia

In 2002-03 the South Australia Country Fire Service (CFS) attended 34 forest fires, 677 scrub and grass fires, and 706 grass and stubble fires. The area burnt covered an area of almost 50,000 ha. This is more than double the total area burnt in the previous season. Most of the bushfires in South Australia were contained and extinguished on the same day, but there were several large fires that continued to burn for four to seven days. In total 36,413 personnel and 6,125 appliances were involved in rural fire fighting during the 2002-03 fire season. The CFS aerial water bombers were used at 87 incidents during the season (Y. Dowling, South Australia Country Fire Service, 2003 pers. comm. 8 July 2003).

There were no fatalities, but scrub fires caused damage to a small number of houses and other buildings, some vehicles and fencing. There was little loss of stock (Dowling op. cit.).

Western Australia

The 2002-03 bushfire season in the southern half of Western Australia have been described as the one of the most severe in 42 years (CALM 2003). A total of 656 wildfires burnt 2.11 million ha of land managed by the Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM). Of this, more than half (1.15 million ha) occurred in other crown lands, 0.53 million ha in National Parks, 0.16 million ha in nature reserves and 0.15 million ha in private property.

The cost of suppressing the fires on the state's conservation lands was $12.3m, a three-fold increase on the average cost of fire fighting over the past five years. This was due to the large number of fires, and the difficulty in controlling and securing the fires under the severe weather conditions and very dry fuel loads (CALM 2003). Despite the hazardous conditions during bushfire suppression and during prescribed burning operations there was only one fire fighter seriously injured.

CALM contracted six fixed wing water bomber aircraft during the summer months of the 2002-03 season, and in addition Fire and Emergency Services Authority of Western Australia (FESA) contracted two helicopters. The fixed wing aircraft dropped 1,151 loads (over 2.8 million litres) of water and foam during 642 operational hours and it was estimated that they saved public and private assets and natural resources worth $10.6m (CALM 2003).


In mid-January 2003, bushfires destroyed 52,000 ha of grassland and forest in Tasmania during some of the state's worst bushfires since 1967 (D. Chuter, Forestry Tasmania, 2003, pers. comm. 17 April 2003; Statistics Tasmania, 2003). This included: 29,500 ha of private property, 16,500 ha of National Parks and State Reserves, and 6,000 ha of state forest. The longest running fire lasted about four weeks (Chuter op. cit.). There were no fatalities associated with these fires and loss of property was relatively minor.

Northern Territory

Central Australia experienced bushfires which burnt more than 15 million ha of the region between August and November 2002. This exceeded the previous record fire event which occurred in the mid-1970s. The fires were caused by a combination of factors including an increased fuel load in the past three years caused by above average rainfall, followed by a record dry period from February to November 2002. Frosts that occurred throughout winter killed many leaves, further dehydrating trees and enhancing fuel load volatility (AFAC 2002).

Australian Capital Territory

The Bureau of Meteorology described weather conditions leading up to January 2003 in their submission to the inquiry into the Australian Capital Territory bushfires (McLeod 2003). The drought prevailing at the time was described as one of the most severe in the nation's recorded history. Significant areas of the country were experiencing serious or severe rainfall deficiencies, below normal atmospheric humidity and cloudiness, and daytime temperatures were at record high levels. Rainfall in the Australian Capital Territory from October to December 2002 was less than one-third (40.2 mm) of the median (150.4 mm) and average maximum temperatures in November 2002 were five degrees above average. The Bureau identified this period of time as being critical in the lead-up to the January 2003 bushfire event.

On 18 January 2003, the most severe fires approached and then devastated some suburbs of Canberra. They were driven by strong winds and the fire's intensity was increased by high temperatures, low humidity and high fuel loads. By mid-afternoon, at the height of the fires, winds were gusting to 78 km/h, relative humidity was below 10%, and the air temperature was in the high 30 degrees celsius (McLeod 2003).

During the period 8-30 January, 2003 bushfires burnt approximately 160,000 ha, 66% of Australian Capital Territory's land area, including 110,000 ha of nature reserves and national parks, 27,000 ha of farmland and rural housing, and 11,000 ha of plantation forestry (ACT Bushfire Recovery Taskforce 2003a; Environment Business 2003). A further 100,000 ha were burnt in adjoining New South Wales (McLeod 2003). The 2003 fires burnt a significantly larger area than the 1957-58 fires (104,000 ha), the previous largest area burnt in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT Emergency Services Bureau 2003a).

The 2003 fires killed four people and over 500 homes were destroyed (ACT Chief Minister's Department 2003) including 87 rural houses and 414 located in urban areas (McLeod 2003). A further 175 houses suffered damage. It was estimated that 419 km of fencing was destroyed (ACT Bushfire Recovery Taskforce 2003c). The estimated cost from damage to rural properties, parks and forests, houses and urban infrastructure was approximately $300m (McLeod 2003). Eight of the properties (less than 2%) were uninsured which was lower than the 18% of owner-occupied households that were found to be uninsured after the 1994 Sydney bushfires (ACT Bushfire Recovery Taskforce 2003c).

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