After the fires; The Blue Mountains Black Summer

Pink Flannel Flowers blooming on Narrowneck Plateau a year after the Ruined Castle fire of 2019/2020

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.

Buds emerging from the burnt trunk of a Eucalyptus tree after the 2020 Gospers Mountain Fire
Just weeks after the Grose Valley fire passed through near Mount Wilson, the regrowth was emerging (January 11 2020)

 

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.

Colour image of the regrowth of a Black Boy grass plant near Mount Wilson after the Grose Valley fire
Just weeks after the Grose Valley fire passed through near Mount Wilson, the regrowth was emerging (January 11 2020)

 

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.

The October 2013 Linksview Fire burns behind the local Coles supermarket at Winmalee
The October 2013 Linksview Fire burning behind the local Coles supermarket at Winmalee
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.

Sun rising through the smoke of the fire at the end of my street in the Blue Mountains October 2013 fires
Sunrise on the morning after the Linksview fire ignited in October 2013, waking to the fire at the end of my street

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.

Black and White image of a scorched and twisted bicycle in the rubble of a burnt house after the Grose Valley fire
A burned and twisted bike lies in the rubble of a burned house on the Bells Line of Road near Bilpin, January 11 2020

 

Burned and curled leaves on the Bells Line of Road near Bilpin after the Grose Valley fire
Burned leaves on the Bells Line of Road near Bilpin, January 11 2020

 

Burned road sign on the Bells Line of Road near Bilpin after the Grose Valley fire
Bells Line of Road near Bilpin, January 11 2020

 

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.

Burnt bushland beside the Bells Line of Road near Mount Wilson from the Grose Valley fire, January 11 2020
Looking towards the Grose Valley. Bells Line of Road near Mount Wilson, January 11 2020.

 

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.

Cliff face at Govetts Leap in Blackheath where the Grose Valley fire roared up the cliff
Govetts Leap, February 16 2020

 

Bushland off Mount Hay Road in February 2020 after the Grose Valley fire
Bushland off Mount Hay Road behind the township of Leura, February 16 2020

 

Regrowth on Mount Hay Road just weeks after the Grose Valley fire, February 2020
Regrowth on Mount Hay Road just weeks after the Grose Valley fire, February 16 2020

 

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.

Mount Wilson
Black and White image of a burnt street sign indicating an upcoming left turn, charred trees behind it
Bells Line of Road near Mount Wilson, January 11 2020

 

Colour image on Bells Line of Road near Mount Wilson showing replaced left bend sign and regrowth in the trees
December 5 2020

 

Image showing the stone monument marking the town of Mount Wilson, with burnt trees surrounding it
January 11 2020

 

Colour image of the stone monument marking the town of Mount Wilson, with regrowth behind
December 5 2020

 

Bilpin
Burned bushland at a rest stop on Bells Line of Road near Bilpin, January 11 2020
Rest stop on Bells Line of Road near Bilpin, January 11 2020

 

Rest stop on Bells Line of Road near Bilpin regrown in December 2020
December 16 2020

 

Govetts Leap Blackheath
The cliff at Govetts Leap up which the Grose Valley fire roared 6 months after the fire
14 June 2020

 

Mount Hay

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.

Burned scrub on the walk out to Lockleys Pylon
September 2020

 

So too were they in February 2021.

View from Lockleys Pylon in Blackheath showing some of the recovery from the 2019 Grose Valley fire
February 2021

 

Mount Victoria

The walk to Victoria Falls and nearby Asgard Swamp was through a burnt and regenerating landscape in October 2020.

Burned and regenerating trees on the track to Victoria Fa;llls in October 2020
October 2020

 

New growth on burnt trees in Mount Victoria in October 2020
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.

Field of rare Pink Flannel Flowers blooming on the track to Ikara Head
March 13 2021

 

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.

Macro image of group of rare Pink Flannel Flowers on track to Ikara Head
March 13 2020

 

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.

 

Narrowneck Plateau

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.

Burnt skeletons of trees with some regrowth behind on the narrowneck plateau after the Ruined Castle fire in 2019/2020
May 24 2020

 

Burnt tree skeletons on the Narrowneck Plateau from the Ruined Castle fire in 2019/2020
May 24 2020

 

Close up image of burnt seed pods on Narrowneck Plateau after the Ruined Castle fire in 2019/2020
May 24 2020

 

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.

Pink Flannel Flowers blooming on Narrowneck Plateau a year after the Ruined Castle fire of 2019/2020
February 21 2021

 

Pink Flannel Flowers blooming on Narrowneck Plateau a year after the Ruined Castle fire in 2019/20
February 21 2021

 

The day I visited I had my Macro lens in my bag so was able to get some close ups.

Macro image of Pink Flannel Flowers and buds on the Narrowneck Plateau blooming one year after the Ruined Castle fire
February 21 2021

 

Macro image of honey bee drinking from Pink Flannel Flower on Narrowneck Plateau
February 21 2021

 

Macro image of honey bee on pink flannel flower on Narroneck Plateau a year after the Ruined Castle fire
February 21 2021

 

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.

The Summer of 2019 and 2020 has become known as Black Summer due to the number, size and intensity of the bushfires striking multiple parts of Australia. In NSW the Blue Mountains was threatened by a number of fires, but before too long the resilience of the Australian bush was on display and life rose from the charred remains

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3 thoughts on “After the fires; The Blue Mountains Black Summer”

  1. I love your cover pic of the flannel flowers on Narrow Neck in Katoomba. I saw them too & it’s such a rare and special event. It’s amazing how quickly the bush recovers. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences!

  2. It’s amazing to see the differences in the photos. I didn’t think that nature would recover that quickly but it has! I remember seeing the fires on the news and was really saddened to see everything burning.

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