A "DISASTROUS" blaze left a vast trail of destruction on Bendigo's outskirts 76 years ago this week.
Some lost everything but the clothes on their back and others were seriously injured in out-of-control fires that scorched mile after mile as far as Elphinstone.
It happened during a fire season so destructive that a reluctant state government was forced to take on a greater role in bushfire responses, leading to the CFA's establishment.
So what happened when the then-largest bushfire in Bendigo's history erupted on Friday, January 14 1944?
'One of the worst days of fires in Victoria'
The alarm was first raised at 2.30pm when someone saw smoke near the Calder Highway in Ravenswood, according to a report the next day in the Bendigo Advertiser.
Within hours, 1000 volunteers had arrived from nearby towns to protect homes as the flames surged across a bone-dry landscape.
Witnesses would later say the flames were moving at about 65km an hour under a northwesterly - comparable to the speeds seen last November when an out-of-control fire erupted in Strathallan during the worst fire conditions seen in nine years.
Firefighters had to deal with gustier conditions a month-and-a-half ago, but they had the advantage of recently harvested paddocks, little thick bushland and modern equipment to bring it under control by evening.
It was different in 1944.
By the time the Bendigo Advertiser went to print early Saturday morning fire had swept through 10 miles of country in Ravenswood, Sutton Grange, Mandurang and other districts.
"The flames are still very strong in many widely separated points of the fire area, and experts consider that the real danger of the fire will be to-day," the newspaper reported.
"Should a wind spring up this morning, the fire would be certain to spread in many areas, where the forest trees last night were one sea of fire".
Bushland posed particular difficulties in 1944. Members of the public arriving at fire and police stations would likely have been supplied hessian sacks to beat back flames with, or hand-cranked backpacks full of water.
That kind of equipment was suited to grass fires, but once flames reached thick patches of forests there was only one thing volunteers could do, La Trobe University's Jim McLennan said.
"You just didn't go in there," he said.
'A dismal scene of desolation' seen from Harcourt
By the early hours of Saturday morning it remained unclear whether anyone had been killed in desperate bids to save houses and outbuildings, or whether winds might soon push flames into heavily wooded areas like those at Big Hill.
Elsewhere, word was filtering through about "one of the worst days of fires in Victoria".
A 70-year-old woman burned to death in her Woodend home during a fire that also enveloped Gisborne, Tyledon and Maldon, a report written in Melbourne and syndicated the Bendigo Advertiser said.
Others were killed in separate blazes near Ballarat, Geelong and Colac.
Difficulties communicating with fire affected areas meant details were scant, but 150 homes had already been confirmed destroyed.
"The total may be nearer 200 when further information is received," the article stated.
By the following Monday, the Bendigo Advertiser had named its district's fight "the most hectic battle with fires in the history of Northern Victoria.
"A dismal scene of desolation, with black, scarred hills, can be seen from the Gap at Harcourt stretching for miles, in which area there are wrecked homes, burned haystacks and sheds, and thousands of dead sheep."
A fire zone stretched from Ravenswood to the Campaspe River and to Emu Creek, Lyall and Barfold.
Sutton Grange had been hardest hit. Two men had been taken to Bendigo suffering severe burns to their faces and eyes and five families had lost homes.
"Many were only able to save a few belongings, and in some instances were left with only the clothes they were wearing," the paper reported.
Landholders were yet to work out how many of their sheep had been killed.
Haystacks had been destroyed from Sutton Grange to Elphinstone and several Harcourt orchards were expecting any surviving crops to be affected.
Fire kept flaring up in Mandurang but hundreds of volunteers kept it from Bendigo and steadily confined the rest of it to isolated forest patches, the Bendigo Advertiser reported.
No-one had died in the Bendigo district despite "many narrow escapes".
Elsewhere, the death toll from Friday's outbreaks had climbed to 18 by Monday morning and would keep rising in the days to come.
Pressure mounts on 'do nothing' government
Over the course of the summer, 51 people would die in separate fires across the state and the media ramped up pressure on premier Albert Dunstan's government, accusing it of failing to heed lessons from catastrophic fires that had killed 70 people in Gippsland five years earlier.
A defensive government had rejected every recommendation from a highly critical commission into those fires, Professor McLelland said.
That included a call for a single statewide group like the CFA to handle bushfires, rather than leaving responses to communities and volunteer networks.
"The straw that broke the camel's back was actually on the 14th of February, 1944, at Yallourn. A fire there interfered with electricity generation and there were blackouts across the state.
"It was said to be interfering with war production. How true that claim was I don't know ... but that seems to have urged the government into being seen to do something."
It appointed judge Leonard Stretton to investigate the fire. Stretton had authored the critical review of the '39 fires, but many considered him the only man for the job, Professor McLennan said.
He was ordered to confine his report to the Yallourn fire but added a few pointed references to previous findings, Professor McLennan said.
"The journalists of the day had no trouble decoding that. So the government copped a hell of a lot of flack for 'doing nothing' after '39 - and because no-one was in charge, overall, of the 'bushfire problem'," he said.
While today's fire season is similar in some respects to 1943/44's, Professor McLelland was reluctant to draw parallels between Dunstan and current prime minister Scott Morrison.
"If you wanted to, you could make a case that we currently have no nation-wide response to fighting bushfires, much like the lack of a state-wide approach in 1944," he said.
"I don't want to seem as if I'm advocating something, though. We are a federation and the Commonwealth's powers are severely limited.
"States can get a bit uppity if they sense the federal government encroaching on their turf.
"Premiers' generally think the federal government's role should just be to give them money," he joked.