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Black Thursday’s devastating bushfires

Victoria is often victim to a cruel summer bushfire season, with temperatures soaring and unpredictable in the southern state. The first European settlers faced the devastating impacts of Victoria’s bushfires in Black Thursday, when over a quarter of the colony was burnt.

The lead-up to the deadly fires was plagued by several years of erratic and intense weather patterns. In 1848, the Victorian colony (which was then still part of New South Wales), was subject to unusually heavy rainfall, followed by severe drought. This then continued throughout the following years, with lots of rainfall in the cooler months promoting a lush build-up of vegetation, which would then later be dried out during scorching summer heat – creating a hazard with lightning strikes. Despite reports of snow in Melbourne during the winter of 1850, the summer of 1850–1851 was long, unbearably hot, and extremely bushfire prone. 

On Thursday 6 February 1851, Black Thursday fires raged. The weeks prior, uncontrollable fires ravaged the Plenty Ranges in Melbourne’s north-east and Mount Macedon in the north, prompting newspapers to ban travellers from smoking on the roads in case new fires were to start. On that particular Thursday in early February, a brutal temperature of 43 degrees Celsius was recorded in the shade and, coupled with a wild north wind and the existing fires, a multitude of bushfires quickly set the soon-to-be state ablaze.

Eyewitnesses claimed the flames jumped between treetops, while others noted how the flames rolled over the grass areas with intense speed. Some even claimed that the smoke could be seen in the distance from certain points in northern Tasmania. There were fires reported not only surrounding Melbourne, but down in Geelong and across other regional parts of the colony. 

There were only 12 recorded deaths as a result of Black Thursday, but the impacts on the landscape and the farming industry were immense. It’s been estimated that over one million sheep perished because of the fires, alongside thousands of other livestock and native animals.

Featured image: Black Thursday, February 6th, 1851, by William Strutt

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