Australia's Deadly Fires
March 2009

by Nick Moir


At least a month before the devastating fires that tore through the southeast of Australia in February, it was possible to see something dangerous was building. The long-term drought and then a long heat wave with record temperatures exceeding 45 C [113 F] day after day across South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales meant disaster was looming.

© Nick Moir
With firebombing aircraft, bulldozers and farm machinery, rural firefighters assault a blaze started by lightning north of Temora in western New South Wales.
On the worst day, close to 100 fires were burning uncontrollably, from Sydney, where I live, to 1000km [620 miles] south near Melbourne. After covering a dangerous local fire it became evident that something exceptionally bad had happened in Victoria. I made my way south to a remote fire called the "Beechworth Fire" that had been burning for two days and had wiped out a town and many farmhouses, killing people, cattle and wildlife. Thick, hazy smoke filled the air as I drove through the rolling hills and I bluffed my way through police roadblocks or avoided them altogether. By the evening I was driving past burnt out remains of homes and incinerated forests. I witnessed the glow of a fire front racing through grass and scrubland then up along ridge tops followed closely by farmers and firefighters chasing the flames. They were attempting to back-burn alongside it to stop it from running at homes. This time the flames avoided the homes but were impossible to stop in more rugged terrain.

Further south in the regions that were hit hardest near Melbourne, it was very difficult to get access to the fire grounds as they had been officially declared crime scenes because of the large loss of life and the probability that arsonists ignited them.

© Nick Moir
Australian firefighters watch the "Beechworth fire" race past them on the ridgeline in front of their backburn.
Despite being an experienced fire photographer, the scale of destruction was difficult to understand. What had gone wrong? Decades of science and well-thought-out policy were made obsolete in a few hellish hours. In street after street houses were wiped out by the inferno. It was very difficult to show the extent of the damage from ground level because after a while one carcass of a house looks like any other. The large eucalyptus and pine plantations that surrounded these towns were burnt from root to the very treetops. The fact that this happened meant that the fires were full "crown fires" – the most intense forest fires possible. Some video footage coming from locals shows what appears to be huge "pyrotornadoes" tearing through the bush ahead of the main front.

It is now becoming evident that town planning, building codes and the unprecedented weather conditions all helped create this disaster, which the Climate Institute in Australia refers to as "the fires of climate change."

© Nick Moir
As firefighters mop up a grass fire, the glowing remains of the trail of the "Beechworth fire" is seen in the distance. Victoria, Australia.
After seeing these fires, I am rethinking my strategies for approaching "megafires" on dangerous days such as these were. Photographing fires with an element of safety requires a knowledge of how fire works, knowing how close is close enough and when to move, constantly watching escape routes and for collapsing burnt-out trees called "widowmakers" by firefighters. On bad days the temps are 45 C+ [113 F+] and winds well over 80kph [nearly 50 mph], you must stay close to the roads and homes because going alone into bush land alight with flames is a death wish. You cannot outrun fires on days like these; sometimes cars are overrun because smoke makes visibility nonexistent. I wear a fire-retardant suit, helmet and carry a lot of water in the vehicle and a few liters on me. I send my images using a PDA and using the Idruna Phojo program. I also have begun wearing a helmet-mounted video camera.

Here is a link to the video from the Peats Ridge fire on Feb. 7:

And a multimedia piece leading up to the bad fire day:

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© Nick Moir

Nick Moir has worked for The Sydney Morning Herald since 1993 and was a co-founder of (Moir writes that is a collective of like-minded photographers from Australia who display and sell their personal work on the site. It was formed in 2000 because Australia has almost no magazines that publish photojournalism and newspapers rarely do. The site serves as an outlet outside of the main press. The group is represented by Agence VU in Europe.)

In 2002 Moir was named the Australian Press Photographer of the Year for an essay on severe weather in and near Sydney and in 2003 won a World Press Photo Award for his coverage of the 2002/03 bushfire season in SE Australia.

Contact Nick Moir at:

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