The Victorian bushfires of 13 January 1939, known as Black Friday, were the culmination of several years’ drought in the state, following by high temperatures and strong winds. These conditions fanned several fires – some of which had been burning since early December – into a massive fire front. Fire swept over the mountain country in north-east Victoria, and along the coast in the south-west.
Smoke covered Victoria; approximately 75 per cent of the state affected by the fires to some extent. Despite the number of fires burning and the severe conditions, some bushmen and graziers lit additional fires in an attempt to protect themselves – only for these fires to get out of control and spread.
On 8 January, two people had died in the Toolangi State Forest. By Monday 9 January, fires were burning in Dromana, Arthurs Seat, Frankston, Dandenong Ranges, Cockatoo, Noojee, Moe, Yallourn, Bairnsdale, Harrietville, Mt Bogong, Orbost, Woodend and Mt Macedon.
By 10 January, almost all the forests in the Great Dividing Range were on fire. There was a large outbreak around the town of Erica, north-east of Moe, and at Powelltown between Yarra Junction and Noojee.
By 13 January – Black Friday – the temperature reached 44.7 degrees Celsius in Melbourne, and 47.2 degrees Celsius in Mildura with very low humidity levels. Narbethong, Noojee, Woods Point, Nayook West and Hill End were completely destroyed by the fires on this day.
The fires claimed 36 lives in Victoria on Black Friday; the total number of deaths across January was 71. Approximately 1300 buildings were lost – more than 700 homes, 69 sawmills, many businesses, farms and other buildings.
The south-east of South Australia, southern New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Tasmania also experienced fires in January 1939.
A Royal Commission for the Black Friday bushfires played a significant role in increasing bushfire awareness and prevention throughout Australia.