Fire Stories:
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Canberra 2003
Nelson Bay Tas 2016 
Ash Wednesday 1983

Fire Stories - Ash Wednesday Vic & SA 1983

'It was bedlam': The day 75 people died


Ash Wednesday is one of the worst bushfires in Australia's history with 75 people dying in Victoria and South Australia. (ABC Weather: Humyara Mahbub)

On February 16, 1983 there were about 180 fires burning across Victoria and South Australia.

Twenty-eight people died in SA and 47 people in Victoria lost their lives in what became known as the Ash Wednesday bushfires.

Graham Simpson had been made a captain of the Cockatoo Fire Brigade, a volunteer brigade with Victoria's Country Fire Authority (CFA) in the Dandenong Ranges, just three months before the Ash Wednesday fires tore through his home town.

Earlier in the day the main fire truck had been sent to fight a fire at a nearby town, leaving just a small truck and six volunteer firefighters in Cockatoo, when a fire started at about 7:30pm.

"It burnt up the hill and then the wind change came through at 100-plus kilometres an hour," he says.

"There was no way we could stop it with a small truck.

"It was absolute bedlam here. People trying to get out on the night. I was trying to clear the traffic … I was at the intersection here, telling everyone to go to Gembrook.

"So they went up to the footy ground up there. Fortunately there was no fire up there."

While some people got out to the football ground, about 300 people with their pets took shelter in a childcare centre.

"The power's gone out, it's stinking hot, the wind is blowing through, the only light is from the flames. There were people on the roof … stamping [the fire] out.

"My wife and two small children were in there at the time. I was off fighting the fire. I didn't know where they were."

It took just 20 minutes for the fire to rage through Cockatoo, killing six people and destroying more than 300 buildings.


How we prepare and defend during bushfires has changed a lot since Ash Wednesday in 1983 when 75 people died. (ABC TV)

While the fire moved through the township in just minutes, Graham didn't get a rest for 43 hours, trying to protect people and property against the unstoppable flames.

When he was finally able to go home, Graham found his house was the only one left in his street.

"I wasn't there to save it [but] I was more prepared. I practise what I preach.

"Keep the gutters clean. Don't plant plants right up against the house. Stack the firewood on the back veranda."

Graham and his family stayed in Cockatoo after the fire. In 2018 a memorial designed by Graham was dedicated to the memory of those who lost their lives that day.