Black Thursday: Lessons from the Bonfire of History

Are the legacy media in Australia, particularly the taxpayer-funded national broadcasters, damned liars or merely astonishingly ignorant? It’s perhaps more generous, though not by much, to assume that they are simply as obtuse and woefully uneducated as they must be, to repeat the same, stupid lies, every summer when large bushfires erupt.

The Big Lie this summer is that the catastrophic bushfires ravaging Queensland and New South Wales are “the worst ever” and “unprecedented”. Simply put: neither claim is remotely true. A simple search of freely available newspaper archives such as Trove quickly turns up headlines from the 1930s and 1950s, reporting large-scale bushfires in areas which the legacy media are breathlessly reporting “have never experienced fires before”. Nor is the early bushfire season unprecedented. In the late 1940s, Queensland newspapers reported fires “from Bundaberg to the New South Wales border”, and “an 800-mile chain of fires…from Cairns to Maryborough”.

As for “worst ever”, that depends of course on what metric you choose. For sheer scale, the Black Thursday firestorm brooks no rival in Australia’s recorded history. On that apocalyptic day, five million hectares of the the newly-established colony of Victoria were razed.

The conditions on the day, and in the months preceding, easily merited the modern classification of “catastrophic”. Thursday, 6 February 1851, dawned as a classic Melbourne “scorcher”.

The searing northerlies roared hotter and hotter. By 11am the temperature was an astonishing 47°C in the shade, and the north wind “had increased to almost a hurricane”. As in the lead-up to Ash Wednesday in 1983, the fires were preceded by enormous dust storms. But worse was to come – much worse, as roaring firestorms replaced the dust.

Fires “wrapped the whole country in a sheet of flame — fierce, awful, and irresistible”. “Everything seemed one mass of glaring fire and smoke,” wrote colonist John Chandler. “Ashes were falling everywhere, the wind was like the blast from a furnace; and candles had to be burned in the houses to see”.

Although the major population centres were miraculously spared, large parts of what are now Melbourne’s suburbs burned. “All the bush between Melbourne and St. Kilda was burned, and all the ti-tree scrub along the banks of the Yarra, and all the farms around Melbourne for miles were burned,” Chandler recorded. Fully a quarter of the colony burned.

Chroniclers record a scene horrifyingly familiar to anyone who’s witnessed a mega-bushfire: a terrifying wall of flame driven by the fierce north winds. “Flight was the only chance, and even that, on foot was a doubtful resource, for, where the fuel was abundant the flames travelled at a rate that overtook and consumed the flying stock at their maddest gallop.” Flaming embers were driven far out to sea, setting fires on ships in Bass Strait.

“Some people thought the Judgement Day had come,” wrote Chandler – and not just in Victoria. The smoke from Victoria turned day into night at Ulverstone, on Tasmania’s north coast. Terrified residents prayed for delivery from what they were convinced was the “Great Day of His Wrath”.

Animal losses were staggering. “Birds were dropping down off the trees before the fire in all directions – opposums, kangaroos, and all sorts of beasts were roasted,” reported the Melbourne Argus. A million sheep burned, and thousands of cattle, along with millions of hectares of pasturage. The economic blow to the agrarian colony would have been enormous.

There are many lessons to be learned from Black Thursday.

The current bushfires, while shocking, are not the “worst ever”, as repeatedly asserted by the legacy media. Coming as they did on the tail-end of the Little Ice Age, when atmospheric CO2 levels were a mere 285ppm, climate change cannot be blamed, either.

What does seem to be to blame are both an intense drought and a sudden change in land management. Victoria was first settled in the 1830s. By the 1850s, the Aborigines of the area had been almost entirely dispossessed – and their ancient “fire-stick farming” ended. In just a couple of decades, it seems, the fuel load built to catastrophic levels.

The prevalence of fire use by Aboriginal people cannot be overestimated. Almost without exception, early explorers from Cook on constantly remark on the ubiquitous fire and smoke they saw everywhere they went. They also commonly described the country as resembling an English park: open grasslands and widely spaced trees. Dense bushland is largely a modern artifact, the consequence allowing what many historians now regard as a managed landscape to run wild.

As Black Thursday seems to warn us, in the absence of fire-management, the Australian bush rapidly becomes a loaded tinderbox. This is the lesson, it seems, that not just the legacy media but those creating and enforcing land-use and vegetation laws need to learn.

Contemporary illustrations depict people fleeing the wall of flames.

One thought on “Black Thursday: Lessons from the Bonfire of History

  1. Pingback: How the Australian Government Created a Treasure Trove for Citizen Journalists – A Devil's Curmudgeon

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