Remembering Ash Wednesday

The horrific Ash Wednesday bushfires on February 16, 1983, had a devastating impact on South Australia and Victoria. Tuesday marked the 38th anniversary of the day when over 180 fires broke out on one of the worst fire days in a century.

The Ash Wednesday bushfires were some of the deadliest fires in Australian history. A total of 75 lives were lost throughout South Australia and Victoria.

Over 3000 buildings were destroyed and approximately 208,000ha of land was burnt in South Australia and approximately 210,000ha in Victoria. The fires began in the Adelaide Hills and were fanned by 110kph winds. It was hot and the region was in severe drought.

Born and bred Tarpeena local Shirley Little remembered her experience with the Ash Wednesday bushfires, which swept through Tarpeena and claimed 24 buildings and one life. “On the morning of Ash Wednesday, we sort of knew that something was going to happen,” she said. “It was just a build-up of many months of everything being so dry.

“When you walked on the grass, it was crunching under your feet, it was so brittle.” The morning of the fires, Ms Little took one of her daughters to school and went to work at her mother’s post office, where she said there was tension amongst residents. “Every person that came in said, ‘I do not like today’,” she said.

When the out-of-control fire took a turn towards Tarpeena, Ms Little picked her daughter up from school, gathered their belongings and pets and drove to the Tarpeena Football Oval where many people took refuge. “When I was coming down the road, there was so much smoke and it was like driving in the dark,” she said.

“It really was terrifying.” The fire went through Tarpeena at around 4.30pm. Ms Little said fireballs flew overhead, but the CFS kept everything under control. “We just sat there and waited for it to come and go,” she said.

Ms Little said after the fire, everything was quiet. “I suppose there were no birds, a lot of the livestock was burnt,” she said. “So it was very quiet, it was a bit eerie I suppose.” The town was devastated.

“The people of Tarpeena rallied around each other,” she said. “A lot of former Tarpeena people were getting in touch through the hotel or post office saying they wanted to donate or help.”

Tarpeena formed a committee to help the town get back on its feet and the Tarpeena Bushfire Fund was formed. Ms Little was on this committee and said people generously donated money and household items, the Tarpeena hall was opened and the Salvation Army donated clothes.

Ms Little said they were fortunate to have lost more buildings than lives. “It could have been a lot worse,” she said. “We were not as affected in that way as Kalangadoo, Lucindale and places like that. “People that lost family, it’s just devastating for them.” Ms Little said any sight of smoke and fire was still frightening.

“You do not get over it, you do not forget,” she said. “I’m hoping it never ever happens again.”

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