The Summer of 2019 and 2020 redefined what Australians thought of as a bad fire season.
Bushfires raged across the states of New South Wales and Victoria in particular. The media was flooded with images of people fleeing their homes and the smoke laying thick over everything. On the South coast there were images of people huddled on beaches as the flames roared through the bordering bushland. On the Victorian coastline the Navy rescued residents trapped on the beach at Mallacoota. In the Blue Mountains we heard the terms megafire and megablaze for the first time.
The Australian Bush and fire
Australia has a number of species of Pyrophytes which make the Australian bush uniquely adapted to bushfire. Passive Pyrophytes, such as the Australian Grass Tree and some species of Protea have inbuilt insulation enabling them to resist the effects of fire and survive where other plants cannot. Active Pyrophytes such as the Eucalyptus and Banksia require the heat of fire to melt the resin coating of their seed pods so that the seeds can be released. These are also able to resprout quickly after fire due to their specialised buds which are protected by the trunk of the trees. The Eucalypts have also adapted to have a high crown and sometimes survive fires with only damage to their trunks.
It becomes a problem when we have chosen to build and live in bush surroundings. It can also become a problem when the same areas are burnt again in a short timeframe without the bush having enough time to recover.
Growing up with Bushfire
I have lived virtually my entire life in the world heritage listed Blue Mountains of Australia. An area that according to the NSW Rural Fire Service is one of the most bushfire prone areas in the world. Eight National Parks combine to form the Greater Blue Mountains area, and the roughly one million hectares is dominated by species of the highly flammable Eucalyptus.
I don’t remember being at risk from fire growing up so it is easy to perceive that the risk has increased more in recent times, which experts certainly argue it has. Every year it got drier and every summer we said our time was due. Each year without a bad season was a reprieve we would solemnly remark couldn’t last. Every year the window Rural Fire Service volunteers had to put hazard reduction burns in place got smaller and smaller.
My memory is peppered with significant fire seasons as I moved into adulthood;
- 1994 when I was in the UK visiting my family and media coverage made it seem though the whole mountains had burned to the ground. It hadn’t but friends later described it as Armageddon as the fire bore down on them.
- December 2000 and January 2001 when my family home, partners home and his grandmothers home were all under threat. I spent two weeks shifting belongings between properties in the back of my car. The suburb of Yellow Rock burned that year.
- October 2013, an early start to the season and my first fire as a homeowner. The fire came out of nowhere, started by a branch falling on power lines on a dry, hot and windy day not even a kilometre from my house. Unable to get home from work in time I sent my father to evacuate my cat and collect my packed emergency box (having an emergency box packed ready with essentials and important documents is a necessary part of living in a bushfire zone.) I was lucky that year, but nearly 200 others in Springwood, Winmalee and Yellow Rock were not.
I packed and unpacked my car so many times in October 2013. It is a surreal experience walking around your house asking yourself what you don’t really need, but just don’t want to lose. That year I saw the way my community banded together to support each other, offering up clothes, cars, residences, anything that people could need. I saw how neighbours checked in on each other. A local school principal kept students safe and calm as fire surrounded their school, not knowing that his own home was at that very time burning. Having lived most of my life in this community, every night someone I knew or their family had lost their home. All these years later I am still tuned to the particular sound of a firetruck and snap awake the instant I hear it.
Black Summer fires
Growing up the fire season stuck pretty closely with the Summer. As the years wore on and the bush got drier and the Summers got hotter, the start of the season got earlier and earlier and our Rural Fire Service had less time to prepare with too many hot and dry days ideal for a fire to get away. The NSW Bushfire Enquiry found that this season the available fuel was extremely dry due to prolonged, widespread drought which meant lightning easily started new fires which were often remote. Additionally, NSW was experiencing repeated bad fire weather days with no reprieve at night, indeed the fires were observed to travel an unusual amount at night. These fires were often described as living things and attributed behavioural characteristics such as creeping and racing.
In 2019 it kicked off in October. At one point I had a fire on three sides of me, at the mercy of the weather and which way they were pushed to determine if I was under threat. While I have detailed each of the fires that impacted the Blue Mountains below, I realise that for those unfamiliar with the geography of the mountains it may be hard to keep track of. This map from the RFS may assist.
I started capturing images to document the recovery somewhat unintentionally at first, simply by supporting my fellow locals and taking my camera along for the ride. As my local wandering increased, in part due to the absence of international travel, I was given a unique insight into the passage of time and resilience of my mountains. It felt like a story only a local could tell.
The Gospers Mountain Megablaze
The Gospers Mountain fire was started by a single lightning strike in the afternoon of October 26th 2019 in bushland virtually inaccessible by land. It is the biggest fire from a single ignition point ever in Australia. By days end it had become 521 hectares in size but it was still remote from populated areas and was not seen as a priority given the volume of fires burning across the state. Remote teams were winched in but conditions meant they had to abandon efforts to extinguish the fire and instead shift their focus to containment.
Eleven days later on November 7th, a small amount of rainfall had almost put the fire out. That was until the weather turned again. That day, the fire which had moved an average of 700 metres a day, travelled 12 kilometres and nothing that the Rural Fire Service threw at it could slow it down.
November 12th saw the first use of a new fire danger rating; catastrophic. It would not be the last for the summer. The Gospers Mountain fire moved nearly 12 kilometres, this time in less than 3 hours. The super hot air rising from the fire generated its own thunderstorm, a pyrocumulonimbus. That day the fire reached 56,000 hectares and a perimeter of 170 kilometres.
In late November the RFS spent days preparing a containment line on a dry river 20 kilometres from the firefront, but storm clouds rose in the region again and more fires were started by lightning beyond the line. Early December efforts at backburning to deprive the fire of fuel sparked new fires when the winds changed
On December 6, the Gospers Mountain fire merged with five others to become the megablaze. On December 20 2019, sparked by backburning efforts, the Gospers Mountain fire crossed containment lines at Mount Wilson.
It left a trail of destruction in its path.
Homes in Bilpin and Berambing were destroyed as the fire roared across Bells Line of Road towards the Grose Valley.
It was not declared contained until January 12th, and was finally extinguished by flooding on February 10th. According to data provided by the RFS to the NSW Bushfire Enquiry, it burned over half a million hectares, and close to one million together with the fires that joined with it over the season. It also destroyed 100 homes in the Hawkesbury and Central West regions.
Adapted from ABC investigation into Gospers Mountain megablaze.
The Grose Valley Fire
I remember hearing so many times through my life that the worst thing that could happen in a fire season was a fire to get into the Grose Valley. Not only because of how difficult it would be to get to, and the impossibility of establishing containment lines, but because the landscape of the valley allows the fire to travel incredibly fast and pop up virtually anywhere in the mountains.
When the Gospers Mountain Fire crossed Bells Line of Road the mountains towns of Springwood and Katoomba were now potentially in the path based on what RFS knew of fire behaviour in the Grose Valley. While it was still in essence the same fire, the RFS will often rename parts of the fire according to their geographic location.
It didn’t reach Springwood, but it did reach bushland behind the towns of Leura and Blackheath, where dramatic footage was captured of the fire burning up the face of the below cliff at Govetts Leap in the days leading up to Christmas.
The Grose Valley fire was declared out, after 47 days of fighting, on February 4 2020. It burned nearly 20,000 hectares.
The Difference a year makes
Less than 12 months after the Grose Valley fire decimated everything in its path, the resilience of the Australian bush was on display.
Govetts Leap Blackheath
One of my favourite walks in the mountains, Lockleys Pylon, remained closed for an extended period due to safety concerns after the fire. By the time I got back out there in September 2020 the scars were still visible.
So too were they in February 2021.
The walk to Victoria Falls and nearby Asgard Swamp was through a burnt and regenerating landscape in October 2020.
Elsewhere in Mount Victoria the bushfire ravaged landscape saw a rare event, brought about by the unique combination of conditions that presented in early 2021.
While the White Flannel Flowers are common across the Blue Mountains bushland, the Pink variety (Actinotus Forsythii) can lay dormant for years awaiting just the right conditions and flower so rarely most people would only see them once in their lifetime. I was told by NSW Parks and Wildlife the last time they flowered in the mountains was in 1957. They will flower if rain falls on the fire grounds one year later, and it’s smoke rather than the heat of the fire that prompts them to germinate.
Ikara Head, a spectacular track that starts on Victoria Falls Road, had a prolific covering of the flowers known as bushfire ephemerals, bringing tourists from far and wide.
The delicate flowers upon closer inspection reveal themselves to actually be a cluster of tiny pink flowers bordered not by petals, but furry modified leaves. The genus name means bearing rays.
The Ruined Castle Fire
The Ruined Castle fire was the second fire that threatened the mountains towns over the summer of 2019/20.
This fire approached from the other side, in the Jamison Valley, and similarly to the Gospers Mountain fire was started by a lightning strike in bushland on November 27 2019. It burned for a total of 72 days and burned an area over 17,000 hectares, threatening the towns of Katoomba, Leura and Wentworth Falls, as well as Sydney’s drinking water catchment. The NSW Bushfire Enquiry report acknowledged two older hazard reductions for preventing the Ruined Castle fire moving east to impact the lower mountains townships.
A friend described Narrowneck Plateau, near Katoomba, as being the last line of defence the RFS held, preventing the fire from reaching Katoomba. Narrowneck separates the Megalong and Jamison valleys. The landscape after the fire was sobering, a sea of black skeletons poking up from the scorched earth. Even with life springing through months later, you could see some of it would never return.
One year later
Narrowneck Plateau was another area where the devastation of the fire created the conditions for the Pink Flannel Flowers to burst forth in 2021.
The day I visited I had my Macro lens in my bag so was able to get some close ups.
The Green Wattle Creek fire
Started by lightning on November 27 2019, the Green Wattle Creek Fire burned nearly 280,000 hectares. It was finally declared out on the 10 February 2020.
While it did join up with the Ruined Castle fire and threatened the upper mountains towns via the Megalong Valley, it had a greater impact on the Southern Highlands. It claimed the lives of two firefighters in Buxton when their vehicle was hit by a tree and subsequently rolled. The town of Buxton has built a commemorative playground resembling a firetruck in their honour.
When this fire jumped Lake Burragorang and entered the southern Blue Mountains, it became the Erskine Creek Fire.
The Erskine Creek Fire
Interestingly, the NSW Bushfire Enquiry did not list the Erskine Creek Fire as a separate fire, although the RFS did. It was however separately reported to the Australian Parliament as having burned over 22,000 hectares. It was listed as out in an RFS bulletin on the 11 February.
As with the Ruined Castle fire, while it was remote the Erskine Creek fire was an ever present threat to the mountains depending on the weather and the wind. It posed the most immediate threat to the townships of Woodford through to Wentworth Falls.
The Savage Beauty of the Blue Mountains
If you’ve read this far, thankyou.
I have written and rewritten this over many months. Removing, adding, seeking the balance between sharing my experiences of what is undoubtedly horrific, without making the place I love seem like hell on earth. I hope that instead it tells a story of resilience. The resilience of the Australian bush, the resilience of the Blue Mountains communities, and how this wonderful community comes together when there are people in need.
The reality is this is Australia, and human civilisation will always be subject to the whims of the natural world. The natural disaster just varies according to where you happen to be living.
Mountains residents know this, and I think most accept it as the trade-off for the amazing place we get to live. And we love to share it with visitors.
Please note: the experiences and photographs contained in this work are mine and may not be reproduced without my permission. All sources used in my research have been linked and information is accurate to the best of my knowledge.