2009 Victorian Bushfires Royal Commission - Lay Witness Statements (Final Report Volume 4)

Conditions on the day

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The decade preceding 2009 was the warmest in Victoria on record. During the same period most of Victoria received either below-average or well-below-average rainfall. Some areas received their lowest rainfall on record.

The early part of 2009 was exceptionally dry. In January many locations received no rain at all, or record lows, especially in central and western Victoria. The countryside was parched.

During the final week of January Victorians experienced one of the most severe and prolonged heatwaves in south-east Australia's recorded history. In much of central, southern and western Victoria, maximum temperatures reached their highest levels since 1939. Melbourne had three consecutive days over 43°C.

The dry weather continued into February. On the evening of 6 February 2009 a high-pressure system in the Tasman Sea was causing very hot air from the north-west over much of Victoria. A cold front that extended across southern Western Australia to the Great Australian Bight was moving east towards Victoria.

On 7 February temperatures rose quickly, and gale-force north-westerly winds (up to 90 kilometres an hour) began to reach ground level. By 11.00 am temperatures in much of the state were near 40°C and relative humidity was already below 20 per cent. Forest and grass fire danger indices were well into the extreme range in western and central Victoria, and approaching extreme in the rest of Victoria. In the afternoon temperatures moved to well above 40°C in many areas. Relative humidity dropped to below 10 per cent.

Many places reported, if not their hottest day on record, then their hottest for February. Numerous all-time site records were set, including in Melbourne, where the temperature reached 46.4°C, exceeding the previous record of 45.6°C set on Black Friday (13 January 1939). The new record was also 3.2°C above the previous February record, which had been set in 1983.

In the far south-west a strong, gusty south-westerly wind change arrived at about 12.30 pm, causing temperatures to drop and relative humidity to increase; there was no shower activity.

The wind change moved eastwards at about 30 kilometres an hour. Wind gusts to 115 kilometres per hour were reported at Mt William and Mt Gellibrand. Gusts over 90 kilometres per hour were recorded at other sites.

The change arrived in central Melbourne at about 6.00 pm, and reached Mudgegonga, approximately 300 kilometres north-east of Melbourne, by about midnight. Fire danger ratings remained well into the extreme category ahead of the wind change. In central parts of the state the ratings did not drop below extreme until up to an hour after the change.

The information used in developing this summary comes from Chapter 1 in Volume l of the Commission's final report.

January–February 2009 fires

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