1863: Bushfires Ravage Gippsland

Published on 13 September 2012 by in News

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Artwork by John Longstaff depicting a fire in the Gippsland region. Image courtesy the State Library of Victoria

In February 1863, bushfires swept through the Gippsland region destroying farm lands and burgeoning townships. The fires were so fierce and extensive that observers dubbed it Black Monday comparing the severity of the event to the infamous Black Thursday fires 12 years earlier.

‘The Backwater, near Sale, reserved for a town commonage, and which was the only refuge of the poor starved, and scorched beasts of the surrounding district, became on Monday one fierce, crackling, raging, burning furnace. Trees of immense size were soon burned to the ground, and the smoke and heat became so oppressive, that it was the nearest approach to “Black Thursday” which we have experienced in the colony,’ reported the Gippsland Times.

The fires took off during a heat wave with recorded temperatures of 103 degrees Fahrenheit (39 degrees Celsius). Locals claimed the temperature reached 60 degrees Celsius in areas exposed to the sun.

The Gippsland Times reporter observed numerous tree stumps combusting simultaneously and struggled to explain this phenomenon. ‘In fact there is something about bush fires still unexplained, and we are rather inclined to believe that electrical or some other unexplained cause produces effects which we can hardly attribute to a small spark,’ said the reporter. Evidently it was hard for new settlers to grasp the immense heat that a bushfire front produces.

The agricultural sector was hit hard by the fires which wiped out the pastoral feed for cattle in the region. Pastoralists rushed to offload their marketable cattle to buyers in Tasmania or New Zealand before they lost too much weight. Losses ran into the thousands of pounds which could be equivalent to over a million dollars by todays standards. Luckily the bulk of grain in the region was spared having been harvested prior to the fires.

Gary Cook recently discovered the article detailing the 1863 fire while working as a volunteer on the citizen science project OzDocs. The project is currently looking for more volunteers to help search historical records and uncover further information about Australia’s climate history.

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Saturnia feeds on Eucalyptus Sydney by John William Lewin. Image: State Library of New South Wales

With south-eastern Australia in the midst of wet La Niña conditions and Victoria suffering locust plagues, a team of SEARCH project volunteers has discovered early settlers battled many of the same extremes.

This heavy rainfall has created perfect conditions for insects such as the locusts that are currently swarming in south-eastern Australia.

Australia’s early settlers also battled plagues of insects and extreme weather, according to accounts from the country’s first newspaper, The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser.

A team of volunteers at the State Library of New South Wales has been hard at work extracting weather-related articles from the newspaper, along with meteorological readings from the early years of the colony at New South Wales.

These documentary accounts are being used by the SEARCH research team to help extend South Eastern Australia’s climate record back to 1788.

Volunteer, Gary Cook, who alone has contributed more than 300 articles to the SEARCH project’s OzDocs volunteer database, recently discovered a report of a destructive caterpillar plague that hit Sydney on St Patrick’s Day, 1825.

The research team’s preliminary rainfall reconstruction for the period indicates that 1825 was likely to have been a wet year.

Orgyier Ocks by John William Lewin. Image: State Library of New South Wales

The Sydney Gazette noted that the destructive caterpillar plague hit the settlement after a period of heavy rains, causing widespread crop damage.

“… Since the present enchanting fine weather has again set in, the number of these destructive insects has increased to an unparalleled extent, covering whole fields in their course, which in some spots seemed to be towards the South, in a line from East to West.

Wherever they make their appearance, the most complete destruction immediately follows. Upon Captain Campbell’s estate, in the district of Cooke, they were supposed to be at least two inches in height.”

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 24 March 1825

Australia is presently feeling the effects of a moderate-to-strong La Niña event, which the Bureau of Meteorology forecasts will continue into early 2011, bringing wet conditions to much of the south-east.

The Sydney volunteers have also uncovered accounts of storms that caused shipwrecks and heavy rains that flooded the streets of Sydney.

Volunteer, Ellie Brasch, discovered reports of a unique atmospheric phenomenon, a “peculiar white mist” in Sydney; the refracted light causing an illusion on the horizon line looking out to sea.

“… this line of mist ascended to a position above the horizon, its inferior surface being at one time about a ship’s mast in elevation above it, and forming there a mirror as it were, in which were distinctly visible reflections of three vessels which were going away to the eastward in full sail ; these images reflected on the mist, appeared of course inverted – the hulls upwards.”

The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 3 October 1840.

The OzDocs volunteer project is proving to be hugely beneficial to SEARCH’s research. A wealth of climate information is hidden in the pages of Australia’s first newspapers. Library volunteers are already making this valuable resource much more accessible, by identifying and collating articles of interest to the project.

Thanks to the National Library of Australia’s Trove online newspapers, volunteers can work easily from home or from libraries.

To take part as a volunteer on SEARCH project, please contact the project team, or see our Get Involved page.

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