The Biggest Wildfire You Never Heard About

Wildfires are on everyone’s mind after the historic destruction that began in Australia last year, where 34 people and billions of animals were killed, thousands of homes were destroyed, and around 18.6 million hectares of land were scorched clean of anything organic. But those were the statistics combined from a number of wildfires — not just the one. You might not be surprised to hear that the prize for largest wildfire is also granted to the Australian Outback.

It was eventually named the Black Friday Bushfire after it destroyed 4.9 million acres in Australia’s Victoria State in January 1939. 71 people died while it burned.  1939 as a dry year in other parts of Australia as well. Notable fires occurred in New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory.

According to the Stretton Royal Commission: “On [13 January] it appeared that the whole State was alight. At midday, in many places, it was dark as night. Men carrying hurricane lamps, worked to make safe their families and belongings. Travellers on the highways were trapped by fires or blazing fallen trees, and perished. Throughout the land there was daytime darkness…Steel girders and machinery were twisted by heat as if they had been of fine wire. Sleepers of heavy durable timber, set in the soil, their upper surfaces flush with the ground, were burnt through…Where the fire was most intense the soil was burnt to such a depth that it may be many years before it shall have been restored…”

Many changes to fire coding laws and regulations were made following the catastrophic blaze. The Forests Commission Victoria was allowed a boost in funding to increase fire protections on public lands, and ultimately it gained more land to protect in the process. The common tactic of controlled burning — something the United States is only now finally considering — was implemented to reduce that risk of future wildfires. Of course, we know that doesn’t always eliminate the fires — because 2020.