1863: Bushfires ravage Gippsland

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.

Artwork by John Longstaff depicting a fire in the Gippsland region (1898). Image courtesy the State Library of Victoria.
Artwork by John Longstaff depicting a fire in the Gippsland region (1898). Image courtesy the State Library of Victoria.

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.

The Black Thursday bushfires, February 6, 1851, as depicted by William Strutt in 1864. Credit State Library of Victoria.