February 1900: Bushfires surround Perth during a heatwave

“Yesterday, the city might almost be said to have been encircled by bush fires. There was hardly a point of the compass but was marked by huge volumes of smoke rising from the bush, and the resultant heat was almost unendurable. There was scarcely any sea-breeze during the day, and when at rare intervals a wind did blow, it was almost individually a hot one. During the evening the temperature indoors was intensely hot and outdoors scarcely a breath of wind stirred. When the moon rose shortly after 10 o’clock, it made its appearance from behind a thick bank of smoke, which lay all along the eastern horizon, giving our satellite a remarkable blood red appearance.” The West Australian newspaper, Perth, 22 February 1900.

One of the volunteers on our recently completed Zooniverse citizen science project found a mention of “smoke haze” in the Remarks transcriptions for 12 and 23 February 1900, as well as numerous mentions that it was ‘hot’ and ‘hazy’ throughout the month.

Perth Gardens Journal from February 1900. Source: National Archives of Australia.

Being one of our most highly active volunteers, Wendy Howe, went one step further – and she checked in the local paper at the time to find the below article. The article says that the month of February “came in like a lion“.

THE WEATHER IN PERTH. – BUSH FIRES. – The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954) – 22 Feb 1900

Indeed, the ‘Results of Rainfall Observations made in Western Australia (1830-1827)’, by Commonwealth Meteorologist H. A. Hunt, which we often use in our research to verify the occurrence of historical weather extremes, notes:

“21st February – Perth – The city was encircled by bush fires, and dense volumes of smoke filled the town.

Numerous bushfires in 1900 described in the ‘Results of Rainfall Observations’ document, published in 1929. Source: National Library of Australia.

Hunt lists all of the ‘Heat Spells’ for the Perth Gardens from 1898 to 1927. On 21 Feb 1900, he notes a temperature of 107 Fahrenheit, which is the second highest ‘heat spell’ temperatures given in the 29-year period for Perth Gardens (the highest was on 14 March, 1922 at 107.6 Fahrenheit).

In fact, as you can see in the above image, Hunt noted many references to bushfires along the east coast of Western Australia in early-1900.

To confirm that our findings were valid, we checked the National Library of Australia’s Trove database, and found that there were indeed widespread reports of fires across the east of the entire state published in the newspapers at the time.

Just 50 km south of Perth, bushfires were reported in Jarrahdale, destroying homesteads and supplies.

About 60 km southeast of Perth, in Marradong; “A terrific bushfire… travelled with frightful velocity… for over a week,” was reported The West Australian newspaper in March 1900.It was the most terrible fire known here for some years.”

Even as far North as Geraldton, the Inspector of Lands reported to the Minister that, “The country generally round here is looking very miserable, the last few weeks of extreme heat, combined with the results of disastrous bush fires, having made a barren wilderness of a country.”

These kinds of newspaper articles not only help to validate the instrumental observations, they can give us an idea of how the relentlessly hot weather and succession of heatwaves impacted people at the time. For example, there was a report that in January 1900 a man attempted suicide “during excessively hot weather”. He was charged in Court, pleading not guilty, because; “Some years ago he had a sunstroke… and since then he suffered in hot weather from pains in the head. On the day in question he had suffered considerably.” Fortunately for the man, the jury ruled that he was not guilty.

Our research is helping to connect historical data beginning in the 1830s with modern observations kept by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology to create one of the longest continuous weather records in the Southern Hemisphere. 

As the recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report notes, Australia could warm by 4℃ or more this century. The city of Perth in southwestern Western Australia has experienced a significant decline in rainfall since 1970. Our research is helping to gain a longer-term perspective of Australia’s climate, and how this might impact the future.

The full analysis and results for our newly transcribed Perth data will take time, which we will publish in the scientific literature in due course and share on this website.

If you are still interested in volunteering, we occasionally have tasks we need help with. For more information visit the ‘Citizen Science’ tab of this website, and sign up to our e-newsletter to stay informed.

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK!

If you participated in our latest citizen science project for Perth on Zooniverse, we’d love you to complete a short survey about your experience. Complete the survey here.


Remarkable bushfires between 1830 and 1927, from Hunt’s ‘Results of Rainfall Observations’ document published in 1929. Source: National Library of Australia.