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Background on the project

The bushfires that ravaged the coast from Aireys Inlet to Eastern View on 16 February 1983 were the most devastating event of the last century in our region. They formed part of a massive front of about 180 fires across South Australia and Victoria. A terrible coincidence of timing with the Christian calendar has meant that the fires were soon known simply as Ash Wednesday. The fires have had the same resonance in popular memory as Cyclone Tracy in December 1974 and Black Saturday in February 2009.

1982-83 had been an extremely dry year in south-eastern Australia: some areas had had only one quarter of their usual rainfall. Water restrictions and total fire bans had been imposed in Melbourne by November 1982. Sporadic fires had already occurred; that at Mount Macedon on 1 February destroyed 50 homes. Searing temperatures and high winds swept the state in February, most memorably on the 8th, when a dust storm 500 kilometres long and 300 metres high and holding an estimated 50,000 tonnes of topsoil from the Mallee and Wimmera rolled eastwards across Victoria.

Temperatures quickly climbed above 40o on Wednesday 16 February, and north winds reached 110 kmh. Bushfires started in a number of ways: through the crossing of electric power lines in the wind, tree branches connecting with power lines, and it was later found that some fires were deliberately lit. The situation became more serious during the day as the wind changed and powerful southwesterlies pushed the fires along the coast. The fires which impacted the coast between Lorne and Anglesea began about 3.00pm at Dean’s Marsh. Such was the intensity of the fires that firefighters were forced to retreat to the coast for safety, along with residents and animals fortunate enough to be able to flee the fire front. Fireballs of eucalyptus gas exploded through forests; tinder dry houses were seen to ignite before the fire-front arrived.

Those forced to live through the night recounted extraordinary stories of deafening noise, acrid smoke and shocking sights along with remarkable stories of bravery and generosity.

The devastation revealed in the light of 17 February was horrific. In places the coastline was a scarred, smouldering landscape, scarcely recognizable. But far worse was soon apparent. In all, 75 people died as a result of the Ash Wednesday fires: 47 in Victoria, including 3 in the Otways, and 28 in South Australia. In and around Aireys Inlet, fires destroyed 219 houses in Aireys Inlet, 177 in Fairhaven, 87 in Moggs Creek and 32 in Eastern View. Quite apart from the terrible tragedy of loss of life, and the shock for many people of losing loved houses and possessions, the fires had a profound impact on everyone who lived through them.

Unlike some other communities that experienced Ash Wednesday, such as neighbouring Anglesea, there has not been a project to capture and memories and visual record in Aireys Inlet and its district. This project rectifies that silence, appropriately on the 40th anniversary of the fires.

AIDA secured funding for an oral history project under the Community Initiatives Program of Surf Coast Shire, in the September 2022 round. The funding was supplemented by AIDA reserves as well as a major donation from the Corr family, in memory of Gayle who passed away in April 2021. Gayle loved Aireys Inlet so much, and she spent about 2 years nearly full time as a volunteer supporting the Arthurs Creek and Strathewen communities (where she lived and Pat still lives) after the Black Saturday fires.

The project was designed to employ a local person as the project officer to interview and document oral histories of local residents who experienced the 1983 bushfires, and to collect visual and other records. Our view was that the project would also have significant benefits for the community and Shire through a digital archive and enriched community interaction. It would also remind us all of the increasing need for bushfire awareness and preparation.

Peter McPhee (AIDA Committee)


The Aireys Inlet and District Association (AIDA) is a voluntary organisation founded in 1965 that has been devoted for nearly 60 years to the environment of the coastal strip between Eastern View and Urquhart Bluff on the ‘Surf Coast’ of southeastern Australia. AIDA members include ratepayers, residents, their families and others who share a love of our district. Our communities of Eastern View, Moggs Creek, Fairhaven and Aireys Inlet lie along the Great Ocean Road, nestled between the ocean and the hinterland. AIDA’s overall aim is to conserve the natural environment and special character of these low-key coastal communities, and of the adjacent hinterland, as the area develops and changes.

AIDA acknowledges the traditional owners of these lands, the Wadawurrung People of the Kulin nation, and the Gadubanud People of the Eastern Maar nation. One of our key objectives is to ‘encourage an appreciation of the region through deeper knowledge, especially of the history and the continuing presence of First Peoples’. See the website.

From a small group formed in 1965, AIDA now has more than 500 members who support its key activities: our involvement in planning issues and liaison with local and state governments; addressing future challenges such as tourism, the development and management of the Great Ocean Road; issues of coastal erosion, floods, fires, and the health of the Painkalac estuary, among others.

Project Officer

I was born in 1983 just a few months after Ash Wednesday, when my family’s property behind Lorne escaped the fire on account of the wind change. I have a love for the beaches and the bush along the Great Ocean Road, and a long family connection to it, but it wasn’t until February 2021 that I made the move with my wife and son from Melbourne to Aireys Inlet to live full-time.

Over the past 15 years I’ve developed a career as a professional storyteller. Originally I studied a degree in History and Political Science (honours) at the University of Melbourne before attending film school at RMIT and embarking on a career as a documentary and commercial director. Audio storytelling and podcasting has found a place beside my film work as a means to focus on the craft of interview, and to explore stories about places, people, and the cultures they create.

I’d like to thank the Surf Coast Shire and the Corr family for their generous sponsorship of the project, as well as AIDA for entrusting me, particularly Peter McPhee and Charlotte Allen for providing advice and a sounding board over the course of 2023. The Anglesea and District Historical Society has also been generous in sharing their insights and imagery of Ash Wednesday, some of which features on this site. Thank you to Marilyn Wendt and the A&DHS committee for their collaboration.

As a new resident of the Surf Coast, the Ash Wednesday Remembered project presented me with an opportunity to apply my skills to local history and to do so in a way that I felt could engage both a local and a wider audience with the incredible stories that have lived on in the memories of those who were here in 1983. In the process I’ve been able to meet an array of amazing locals and past residents who have had a formative impact on the place I now call home. My biggest thank you is reserved for them.

All the participants in this oral history welcomed me into their homes to tell me what were often difficult accounts of hardship and humanity and the challenge of facing the unexpected. It was brave to open up to a stranger in such a way, and to set down their private memories for others to hear them.

My hope is that these recordings can be built upon, and that they can serve in some small way to deepen our understanding of the impact that disasters – including bushfires like Ash Wednesday and those we are bound to experience in the future – can have on people, the culture of a place, and its living environment. If nothing else, these stories demonstrate that the ways in which we collectively navigate these risks will have a profound and lasting impact on people’s lives.

Alexander Watkins
Project Officer

To hear more about the process of collecting the oral history, please listen to the recording below.

  • About the Ash Wednesday Remembered oral history project - Alexander Watkins
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