How did the Kilmore, Kinglake and Marysville fires ignite ?

We have all been horrified by the terrible loss of life in the fires north of Melbourne in the afternoon of 7th February. My purpose in this post is to try and develop an accurate timeline of the day. I note that the Victorian Government will hold a Royal Commission, the terms for which I have not yet seen. I also note the Victorian Premier and others blaming “global warming” for the fires and I suspect that his Govt policy of not sufficiently applying hazard reduction burns in cool seasons will be defended tooth and nail by green proponents.
These green policies also stem from Commonwealth bureaucracies; and it could be that there is a need for a Federal inquiry too.
Note on 2nd March. This section is outdated now and a more complete and higher resolution set of radar images are at. More complete sequence of BoM weather radar images Melbourne bushfires 7th Feb 2009
The Melborne images in the National Radar Mosiac were so incomplete I have removed them.

NASA has a pair of satellites that twice a day view our region and on their excellent Earth Observatory web pages you can view larger images of the fires on the 7th at about 3.50pm, see small image below. From the left, Kilmore-Wandong, Kinglake, then Marysville or Murrindindi Mill as it can be termed. An earlier image that day at about 11.30am detected no fire signatures in our critical zone north of Melbourne. Fires were noted elsewhere in the State and Interstate.
N Melb fires 7 Feb
On the 8th the NASA images are very much cloud affected.
However they publish a very interesting false colour image from about 3.35pm on the 9th showing burnt outlines and remnant hotspots. These remote sensed fire signatures show distinctly separate burnt outlines for Kilmore and Kinglake and clearly separate sources for Kinglake and Marysville, see below. Within some of the burnt areas there are some interesting green areas that appear to have been less burnt. More information on these would be welcome.
9 Feb fire hot-spots and burnt areas
Finally, NASA has this very interesting map and animation showing monthly intensity of global fires over this decade. Play the animation and see for yourself how the areas covered by our fires are small compared to those in other parts of the world.

21 thoughts on “How did the Kilmore, Kinglake and Marysville fires ignite ?”

  1. Warwick,

    I don’t know if you’ve seen this article in the Sydney Morning Herald, but I cannot help but agree with it:

    It wasn’t climate change which killed as many as 300 people in Victoria last weekend. It wasn’t arsonists. It was the unstoppable intensity of a bushfire, turbo-charged by huge quantities of ground fuel which had been allowed to accumulate over years of drought. It was the power of green ideology over government to oppose attempts to reduce fuel hazards before a megafire erupts, and which prevents landholders from clearing vegetation to protect themselves.

    So many people need not have died so horribly. The warnings have been there for a decade. If politicians are intent on whipping up a lynch mob to divert attention from their own culpability, it is not arsonists who should be hanging from lamp-posts but greenies.

    Governments appeasing the green beast have ignored numerous state and federal bushfire inquiries over the past decade, almost all of which have recommended increasing the practice of “prescribed burning”. Also known as “hazard reduction”, it is a methodical regime of burning off flammable ground cover in cooler months, in a controlled fashion, so it does not fuel the inevitable summer bushfires.

  2. But they DID burn off in Kinglake in Autumn, we drove through as they were doing it, they burnt off in St Andrews, we stood on our street and watched the glowing embers in the darkness, and even though we knew it was controlled we both felt an unsettling fear. The air smelled of smoke for days. Then in November it rained, it bucketed rain and it filled our tanks and made our gardens grow, but unfortunately it gave the fires fuel.

    You know nothing makes me more angry than people trying to hijack this tragedy to push their own political agenda, whether it’s about burning off or abortion or some other bullshit.

  3. Penni,

    exsctly how many hectares and where were these burns??

    Your statement that they burned off in Kinglake does not tell us whether it was an effective burn or whether it covered a large portion of the area that subsequently burned catastrophically.

    I also note that you tell us it rained after the controlled burn. So the fabled drought wasn’t total in the area??

    You know, nothing makes me more angry than people using weak arguments to push their agenda.

  4. Yes KuhnKat I have been watching media carefully, taking in all points of view and have not heard a whisper of widespread hazard reduction burns in that area. So I am wondering too if this burnoff mentioned by Penni was restricted to a certain property type. I am sure the purpose of the post is to help get facts out in public. It looks from the outlines in the NASA false colour image on the 9th that certain areas at Kinglake burnt much worse than others last Saturday. It would help if somebody could georeference the NASA image with some place names. These issues will run for a long time.

  5. Warwick,

    Here is a link to a report made by David Packham in 2003

    The strategic threat – summary.

    The threat is extreme and in my opinion ranks with (but less than) the threat to Hobart before the 1967 fires and at about the same level as Canberra this year. There are large areas of publicly owned land without any apparent fuel reduction up wind of many villages and towns and the heavy developments in the south of the shire and in adjacent shires.

    The mix of fuel, unsafe roadsides and embedded houses will all ensure that when a large fire impinges upon the area a major disaster will result.

    Nillumbik is truly living on “borrowed time”.

    Well, time’s up. Men, women and children are now dead.

  6. Thanks JohnA, that sure is a fascinating report by David Packham.

    The Canberra Times today carried this story, “Arson arrest as farmers left to pick up the pieces”, in which for the first time I have seen, Victoria Police make statements about the Murrindindi Mill (Marysville) fire starting at circa 2.30pm on the 7th near but not at the disused mill.

    Green lies fly like a speeding arrow, the truth has to struggle uphill. Apologies-I am no Shakespeare.

    Quote from CT.

    Meanwhile, investigators confirmed that the horrific fire that wiped out the town of Marysville and nearby Narbethong, killing up to 100 people, began about 2.30pm last Saturday near the abandoned Murrindindi sawmill, south of Yea.

    Forensic examination indicates the fire was deliberately lit, not the result of a fallen powerline, as local landholders had first speculated.

    Detective Superintendent Paul Hollowood, of the Phoenix taskforce, said last night, ”We believe the mill site is ground zero. We have discounted all accidental causes, leaving us to believe it was deliberately lit. This was not an attempt to burn down the mill but a deliberate attempt to create a bushfire on a massive scale.”

    From the window of his house, local farmer Tony Mitchell saw a column of smoke rising from a patch the roadside near the Murrindindi mill. Moments later it ignited and ”she was all over the shop”.

    If anybody knows of published reasons for ignition at Kilmore and Kinglake, we would be interested to be told. We have heard that the Bendigo fire also on the afternoon of the 7th has been attributed to a cigarette butt landing on a vacant block from a passing vehicle.

  7. The Otways will be next. I fought the Ash Wedbesday fires around Lavers Hill and saw the embers leaping from ridge to ridge. Steve Bracks called the Otways a pristine national park then expelled the loggers and stopped the fuel reduction that burning off and logging bring about. He and his FGreen sucks ignored the fact that the Otway have been logged and regenerated since the mid 1800’s. And the moron calls it pristine!!
    Since then hundreds of city greens have moved into little pockets of the total Otway range, They are living in a time bomb. From my perspective what happens next will be justice. Regards

  8. The causes of ignition will be interesting if they can be determined, and could help prevent future fires. But bushfires are a fact of life in Australia, and whatever the causes – lightning, downed power lines, lighted matches or cigarettes, arson etc. – some fires will always happen. So equal attention needs to be given to controlling fuel loads and protecting dwellings. On The Insiders last week Andrew Bolt claimed the Victorian Environment Department had reported in late 2007 that they had only done half the pre-emptive burnoffs they were scheduled to do, and that the projected total was only a third of what should have been done to assure an adequate level of protection. If this is true, then those responsible should be in the dock just as much as those whose negligence or madness might have lit the blazes.

  9. The terms of reference for the forthcoming RC into the fires, I suspect, will be as narrow & targetted as were the Stern Review and the Idiocy Report from that idiot in OZ. Garnault. Watch this space.

    ps. The ALP cannot afford to lose the Greens Prefs. It will be a political hatchet job. 100%

  10. The ABC current affairs TV show Four Corners,
    “Two Days in Hell” 16 February 2009.
    stated that the Kilmore fire ignited from a downed power line and was reported about 11.50am.
    I have also found this site where you can view and download weather radar images for chosen periods.
    The Melbourne 128km images I downloaded for the 7th confirmed a smoke plume re the Kilmore fire agreeing with above time.
    Unfortunately my download had a gap of a few hours in the afternoon but the Airport radar filled that gap and showed through the afternoon the Kilmore fire migrating west towards Flowerdale, I assume ground level winds were more westerly than the plume which was always circa NW. Then after smoke is sourcing from Flowerdale, a large increase in smoke signature into yellow zone is seen around Kinglake under the plume, in the evening hours. Does anybody know if ground level winds were westerly ?
    The above movement of smoke plume Kilmore to Flowerdale points to the NASA image of burnt areas on 9th not being accurate. Does anybody know of other remote sensing of burnt areas ?
    There must have been a dearth of news from the fire fronts because on 4Cnrs an expert said he was at fire HQ in Melb and went home at 8pm thinking things were quiet.
    Amazing. What about CFA radio ? CB radios ? Phone calls ?
    Also I recall they said on 4Cnrs the first calls to media to put out warnings were to 774 radio circa 3.20pm. What about all the hours from 11.50am ?
    Clearly there is much to emerge about what happened that day.

  11. WSH.
    basically the day should NEVER have evolved as it did. Had proper fuel reduction and rational planning at the council level happened we would not have lost 200+ human beings.

    Unfortunately it is only after a disaster that thinking begins.


  12. Large bushfires are indeed a natural feature of the Australian landscape.

    FYI, the largest Australian bushfire in modern times was in 1973/74 in Western Australia’s Great Southern Woodland and Goldfields. The fire consumed 29 million hectares (that number is correct and is larger than the entire state of Victoria), and burned for 2 years.

    Casualties = 0; Property damage = 0; Because almost no one lives there.

    There was another very large fire in 1993/4.

    The size of these fires dwarfs anything in the Eastern states, yet they don’t even make the lists of largest/worst bushfires. Which illustrates the issue is people living in bushfire prone areas (without adequate safeguards).

  13. have been reading your comments with interest. My brother lost his house at Kinglake as did his daughter, total devastation. He had tried to cut up and remove dead trees and branches for months only to be told “Insects live in those dead trees and you will be fined if you touch them” Well the fire soon took care of the insects and my brother and niece’s homes as well. Green is only good when combined with common sense and there has been very little common sense these last few years. God bless the poor souls who lost their lives.

  14. Thanks for the various comments, I am sure nevket240 is right in that many living in the Otways will be in severe danger when fires ignite there on bad days. It was interesting Philip_B to be reminded of the huge scale of SW WA fires. Did you check out the very good NASA Earth Observatory animation of global fires this decade ? I was working on the Goldfields 73/74 and remember after a late evening run to St Ives seeing the entire eastern skyline aglow. Jan is so exactly on the nail to say, “Green is only good when combined with common sense..”, I do not detect much sign yet Jan that the right lessons are being learned. Lessons that nature has been teaching us since European settlement began.
    Note that now the transcript of the 4Corners documentary is online, so we can all read the exact words and not rely on memory.
    Looking at the 128km Melbourne Airport weather radar for the 7th Feb it indicates a smoke source near Kilmore starting just before 11.40am, notably at exactly the time a smoke plume flares larger between Packenham and Noojee.
    Here is a timeline of what the smoke plume radar signatures indicate for that day. Remember place names are from the weather radar maps.
    1pm Kilmore plume extends to Mt Dandenong, from prior to Kilmore ignition there have been minor signatures east of Healsville, probably not smoke ?
    1.10pm Kilmore plume breaks and shows short section at Kilmore then gap to a broader but weaker signature starting midway Kinglake – Yan Yean and extends as before to Mt Dandenong. Smoke plume between Packenham and Noojee has a more intense signature.
    1.20pm Kilmore plume increases, Kinglake plume fades to the SSE.
    1.30pm more so.
    2pm Kilmore plume looks to have a more intense source then extends as a weaker plume on line between Kinglake – Yan Yean and extends SSE to Mt Dandenong. Smoke plume between Packenham and Noojee still there.
    2.20pm First sign thickening of plume just west Kinglake.
    First smoke signature east of Buxton – NW of Marysville, could this time the ignition of the Murrindindi Mill fire which the police think was due to arson ?
    2.30pm Kilmore plume almost separate from Kinglake plume. West Buxton signature intensifies.
    3.00pm Kilmore plume still almost separate from an intensified Kinglake plume and the new plume west of Buxton is more intense too and indicates a second source near Marysville. No plume near Flowerdale.
    There is a gap in the Airport radar images between 3 and 4.50pm.
    4.50pm Both Kilmore and West Buxton plumes merge and stream to SSE. Kilmore plume source is on line between Flowerdale and Wallan but closer to Wallan.
    5.10pm From here the Kilmore plume seems to move up-wind and to the NNE, suggesting the fire source is migrating somehow to be closer to Flowerdale.
    5.30pm Kilmore smoke plume strengthens and moves yet nearer to Flowerdale, now just past midway between Wallan and Flowerdale.
    5.40pm Tendency for Kilmore plume to edge back upwind continues. West Buxton plume still separate source.
    6.10pm Kilmore plume nearer to Flowerdale and partly separates from Kinglake area. More intense (yellow) radar signatures ~Kinglake area, West Buxton plume migrates over Buxton.
    6.20 – 6.30pm Kilmore plume nearer Flowerdale and to the NW.
    7.00pm Kilmore plume now should be named Flowerdale plume. Plume at Kinglake indicates source has moved to east of Kinglake, clear of smoke signature to west.
    8.10pm Kinglake area of plume lessens and has moved from west to east of Kinglake.
    Gap in images from 8.40 to 11.00pm when all plumes have lessened.
    If anyone knows of an official timeline telling of the evolution of the fires/smoke plumes that day, please let me know. When I get time I will put up a page with all these images.

  15. I have read this thread with much interest and tried to place what I know into the timeline that WSH has proposed. I must admit to a sick feeling in my stomach when I read of the fires advance westward from Kilmore. My wife and 3 kids were up there — they got out around 5.30 ahead of the front.

    The power went out when I was on the phone to my wife (about 5.30) which means the fire must have been at the substation (near Middle Kinglake). A friend who my wife saw at the CFA shed as she was leaving went back to his house to grab his dogs and the fire was at his back fence (this must have been around 5.45ish).

    I have lost all my mobile phone records which would give more accurate times.

    As to the fuel reduction burn debate — I remember talking to a DSE person after the 2006 fires in Kinglake. I wondered then what would happen if a fire came up from St Andrews given the slope and fuel load. But, as conventional wisdom at the time would have it (a wisdom that I certainly subscribed to), he replied that it would be unlikely to happen because of the prevailing winds on bad days and the damp conditions on a south facing slope. 12 years of drought turns even southerly slopes dry. I lived in Kinglake for 3 1/2 years and there were no hazard reduction burns in this difficult terrain. As to the burns in St Andrews last winter, Penni, I remember them being done in close to the township (on non DSE land, I think) which may have stood the town itself in good stead. Fire is a natural part of our landscape and we may need to learn to use it more wisely and widely; but without any of the name calling or finger pointing that is going on at the moment. Yes, I know people who died and many houses that were lost but they were taken by fire. Let’s move on with this debate.

  16. Hi
    I am a resident of kinglake central near the sub station, I saw the fire and fuelled up my car at 5.05pm (as per the reciept) We got the kids off the mountain with my father, the horses next door and stayed to defend our home, it was truly terrifying, i estimate approx 5.30pm, it took about 15 mins to destroy our property, ripping off our back door and filling the house with smoke, we too thought we were going to die. we didnt – however back in 2006 when the fires came close we were at a fire meeting and asked the council why, after numerous requests to clear the undergrowth which was an extreme fire hazard on our 10 acre property, a lady yelled from the back why didnt we buy in the city, no wonder with attitudes like that kinglake had no hope, we cleared 2 acres around our home anyway without permission and i can guarrentee you it saved our lives, along the all the fire equipment hoses and sprinklers we had found the money to put in. I have to wonder if that ladys home survivied ???
    p.s – our local fire brigade have numerous fire meetings thoughout the year and i can tell you hardly anyone bothers to turn up and after the last close call, my brother in law put out 1,000 flyers to put up fire sprinklers for $700.00 he did not recieve one call !!!!

  17. Many thanks liane for sharing your experiences with us. So your times confirm the fire took SIX hours from ignition at the Kilmore broken power line, to your Kinglake disaster. It is interesting that the Tullamarine weather radar images showing the smoke plumes indicate the possibility that around 3pm a separate fire source started NW of Kinglake, you can see the Kilmore plume is not strong at that time. I have approx hourly images at this page with comments. I have not seen any news items re a separate Kinglake fire source. We know about the power line break at Kilmore, also the police suspect arson near Murrundindi Mill, both those matters have been reported in media.

    There is a lot of history of that day still to emerge.

  18. Miki Perkins article in The Age 14 Feb strongly hints at a “conductor clash” event on a high-voltage power line in Wilhelmina Falls Road.

    Media reports e.g. Colac Herald show evidence of power companies exerting massive spin post-Feb7 to arm-twist CFA and police investigators into changing their story, even their thinking. After all they are the “authorities” and the “experts” on electricity, so if they say “it’s impossible we caused the fire”, who are you going to believe?

    The Colac Herald story where these unsubstantiated allegations by the so-called power “authorities” were given top billing were found at the Royal Commission to be dead wrong: _all_ the evidence pointed to bad design and woeful maintenance leading to the wires touching in turbulent winds. Burning shards of aluminium (AAC alloy with added magnesium, I kid you not!) flew over the road on the wind at 2,500degrees C and set the grass alight.

    The Murrindindi fire will be examined at the Royal Commission next week, and as with the western district grass fire there will be lots of evidence, so far suppressed by a deliberate disinformation campaign, that there was a loud bang, the lights flickered, or the power went off to some local customers, shortly before the smoke and fire was observed under the aluminium power cables. I might do a site inspection myself, but at this stage, not sure if LV or HV cables go along Wilhelmina Falls Road (in the smoky photo in The Age article it looks like 22kV two-wire HV feeder, similar sort of culprit conductors as the not-so-deadly Weerite fire).

    Wouldn’t it be a shameful conspiracy, if those connected with the power industry turned out to be dobbing in an honest CFA captain doing his duty examining the ignition point under the power lines?

    Jack Rush QC might soon be adding the Murrindindi Mill fire to the growing litany of murderous “Electricity Fires”. How much more damning evidence has to accumulate before some powerful vested interests get charged with criminal negligence or perverting the course of justice? Is the DPP on holiday or just in denial?

  19. I read a few of these comments and are disappointed so many have so much to say and it is reactonary. As a local I can tell you that there are areas that burned and you can’t tell the difference between the fuel reduction burns and what had not burnt. I don’t want to live in a dryland forest, I want our damp forest. The subsequent clearing in the Kinglake area is discrasful property owners have clearfelled blocks, shire has butched anything that survived the fire. All in a effort to make us feel safer, but some of those trees saved homes, reduced wind speed. Mountain ashes don’t normally burn like they did, because that are wet forest, but after 10yrs of drought and horrible weather conditions they were doomed, along with the rest of us. I can show you were homes with long grass, trees and no person present survived the fires, while others well prepared and their defending lost homes. This is not a simple argument get rid of the forest. We should be looking at how land in these areas are subdivided, small blocks domino effect on loss of homes, better warnings system (the CFA hierachy failed us). Wind is not a simple thing did it come from west. The fire created its own wind, meaning one minute it was south, west. In respect to those who died, many my friends we can’t just latch on one way to burn. Many who died and lost homes loved the life up hear, the bush the trees, the animals. In dryland forest we won’t have what we had before. Yes the fire was terrible, we mourn our losses, but the rubbish from gov, shire is worse to deal with. Yes I was hear when the fire came through with my family, we know what could have been and quite frankly tired of the judgements because we love the bush and trees. Do something about climate change and reduce our risk of fires, don’t pull all the trees and plants down and increase the risk of wildfire.

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