The Ash Wednesday Bushfires in February 1983 ravaged part of Australia’s Great Ocean Road, wiping out whole communities. 

Touring along the Great Ocean Road in Australia, you may hear about the devastating Ash Wednesday Bushfires that occurred in February 1983. While you may not notice any lasting signs of the fires, they had an incredible impact on the coastal region. 

Read on to learn more about the Ash Wednesday Bushfires along the Great Ocean Road.

What were the Ash Wednesday Bushfires?

These were bushfires that burnt out of control across areas of Victoria and South Australia, on one of the darkest days in Australia’s history. Years of drought and extreme weather had created conditions in which wildfires spread rapidly across large areas of bushland. 

Within 12 hours, more than 180 fires – fanned by winds up to 110 kilometres per hour caused widespread destruction across both states,

How did they affect the Great Ocean Road? 

On that devastating day in February 1983, one of the fires that started was at Deans Marsh, inland from the Great Ocean Road, in the Great Otway National Park. The fire spread quickly through the Otway Forest, until a change in wind direction pushed it towards the coast. 

The fire burnt all through the night, with fire fighters unable to to contain the blaze despite their best efforts. As morning light broke, it became apparent that towns along the Great Ocean Road, such as Lorne, Airey’s Inlet and Anglesea had been severely damaged. 

In some of these towns, residents had been forced to run down to the ocean to wait in the water as the flames raced all the way to the beach. This fire burnt through 41,000 hectares of land, destroyed 782 buildings and caused 3 deaths. 

Were they the worst bushfires in Australia’s history?

In all, across Victoria, 47 people died. There were also 28 deaths in South Australia. This included firefighters, some of whom were volunteers trying to protect their communities. It was determined that many of these deaths were because of the wind change which caused firestorm conditions. 

Because of the drought conditions, that summer in total over 486,030 hectares of parks and forests was burnt and over 120,000 hectares of private land was burnt by bushfires.

The Ash Wednesday Bushfires were the deadliest bushfire in Australian history – until the Black Saturday bushfires occurred in February 2009. The Black Saturday burnt across areas of Victoria, damaging many properties and killing 173 people.  

Are bushfires good for the environment?

Bushfires are a regular occurrence in Australia, particularly in the south east where there are large areas of eucalyptus forest. These forest areas have actually evolved to thrive on bushfires. These fires are part of a regeneration and revitalisation process for the eucalyptus trees and surrounding bushland. 

However, with Australia’s expanding population and people living in these bushland areas, bushfires are a major hazard to people’s property and lives – as well as the lives of many animals, both native to Australia and otherwise. 

The destination – Great Ocean Road

Australia’s most iconic drive – The Great Ocean Road – winds its way along Victoria’s southern coastline. A drive along the coast lets you discover epic surf beaches, rolling green hills, rainforest and rocky headlands. The endless turns bring incredible views out to the deep blue Southern Ocean. 

There’s many iconic locations to stop and take in along the Great Ocean Road. The Memorial Arch for a reflection on the effort made by thousands of World War 1 soldiers to carve a road into the rocky coastline. The cosy seaside towns that welcome you with fresh fish and chips, a hot coffee and locally made icecream.

There’s even a whole section of the coast dotted with lookouts – as each view becomes more spectacular than the next. From the steep steps of Gibson’s Beach to the mighty Twelve Apostles, and on to the spectacular Loch Ard Gorge, named after a tragic shipwreck. All framed by towering limestone cliffs and a raging Southern Ocean.    

Visiting the Great Ocean Road today

To visit this special part of Australia and learn about the region’s history, including the Ash Wednesday Bushfires, join us on a day tour from Melbourne. You’ll not only see plenty of waves and incredible beaches, you’ll spend a whole day exploring the coastline. Our tour includes spotting koalas in the wild and viewing the famous rock formations, the Twelve Apostles. 

Tour Highlights:

  • Enjoy morning tea on the picturesque beaches of Victoria’s Surf Coast
  • Scenic drive along the Great Ocean Road
  • See the Twelve Apostles in Port Campbell National Park
  • Visit Loch Ard Gorge, the site of the Loch Ard shipwreck
  • See koalas in their natural habitat in the eucalyptus forests of the Kennett River township
  • Visit the charming coastal township of Apollo Bay
  • Take a walk in the rainforest at Maits Rest in the Otway Ranges
  • Descend the cliffs at Gibsons Steps to walk along the beach
  • View the Memorial Arch and learn about the history of the Great Ocean Road


Written by: Leah Furey – Digital Content Coordinator