Black Friday 1939

Friday January 13, 1939 would go down in history known as Black Friday.  The day would later be described at the Royal Commission as “it appeared the whole of Victoria was alight”

In the days preceding Black Friday, some of the hottest temperatures to date had been recorded, but it was Friday that recorded a temperature of 45.6 degrees Celsius (114.1 Fahrenheit).  This temperature would remain the hottest on record for 70 years.

That summer had been hot and dry with several smaller fires burning, but on January 13 a strong northerly wind hit the state. This coupled with fires being lit by landowners, campfires, inappropriate sawmill operations and domestic fires,  All these conditions had the catastrophic effect culminating in several smaller fires joining, leading to a massive fire front.

By the time the fires were brought under control, they had led to the deaths of 71 people, several towns, 1300 homes, 69 sawmills and 3700 other buildings were destroyed.  It was estimated the three quarters of the state of Victoria was burning.

The fires would be brought under control with the help of rain that crossed the state on Sunday January 15.

The Royal Commission headed by Judge Stretton was held 3 weeks after the fires and attributed blame for the fires to careless burning, such as for campfires and land clearing. It made a number of recommendations to improve forest management and safety, such as the construction of fire towers and access trails. It also encouraged the creation of a regime of supervised burning, which still exists today.

The fires contributed directly to the passing of the Forests Act, which gave the Forests Commission responsibility for forest fire protection on public land. They were also a key factor in the founding of the Country Fire Authority in 1944.

Some of those killed in the fires included:

  • Forests Commission Overseer Charlie Demby, Toolangi
  • Forester John Hartley Barling, Toolangi
  • Baden Johnston, Rubicon Forest
  • Alfred Neason, Rubicon Forest
  • Peter Murdoch, Rubicon Forest
  • Forests Commission foreman, John West, Rubicon Forest
  • Joseph Cherry, Rubicon Forest
  • George Brundrett, Rubicon Forest
  • Vivian Argent, Rubicon Forest
  • Archibald Payne, Rubicon Forest
  • Geoffrey Wyatt, Rubicon Forest
  • Lemuel Sims, Rubicon Forest
  • James Cain, Rubicon Forest
  • Thomas Le Brun, Rubicon Forest
  • Ken Kerslake, wife Ellen and daughter Ruth, Acheron Way
  • Frank Edwards, Acheron Way
  • Chris Soldaris, Acheron Way
  • Antonio Igoshus and his brother Peter Igoshus, Acheron Way
  • Hugh McKinnon, Loch Valley north of Noojee
  • Ben Saxton, his wife Dorothy Saxton and a young timber worker named Michael Gorey, Tanjil Bren
  • W. J. Loosemore, Hill End
  • Nellie O’Keefe, Woods Point
  • Thomas Rusden, Frenchmens Creek
  • William Bolton, Aberfeldye
  • James Fitzpatrick, Matlock
  • Cecil Fitzpatrick, Matlock
  • George Fitzpatrick, Matlock
  • Joseph Rodgers, Matlock
  • James Knuckey, Matlock
  • James Howitt, Matlock
  • Thomas Crowley, Matlock
  • Walter Gladigau, Matlock
  • John Wallace, Matlock
  • George Osterman, Matlock
  • Kevin Kearns, Matlock
  • Alexander Kent, Matlock
  • Michael Rogers, Matlock
  • Henry Illingworth,  Matlock
  • William Illingworth, Matlock
  • Prospector James Lowry and his nephew Ronald Lowry, near Bright
  • Walter Scammell and his mother Margaret Scammell, Kiewa Valley
  • John Edeny, near Homans Gap
  • Ernest Richards, north of Bairnsdale
  • Theresa (14), Mary (12), Vera (10) and Paul Robinson (8), Barangarook
  • Freda, Eric and Rex Habel, near Stawell
  • Charles Cattenach, Moyston
  • Albert McGinty, Casterton
  • Frederick Topping, Warrandyte
  • Ernest Shafter, Warrandyte
  • Albert Dudley Pentreath, Strathewan
  • William Doig, Black Forest District
  • W, Angus, Black Forest District
  • William House, Drummond