Fires in the Blue Mountains

I was down the Wolgan Valley, counting Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby scats with NPWS and gathering images for an upcoming Australian Geographic story on Wollemi National Park, when one morning we awoke to an ominous pall of smoke.

Panorama of smoky headlands, lower Wolgan Valley, 18 October 2013. There was ash falling lightly on our camp.

That was the day after the terrible Thursday (17 October) when a howling nor-wester drove three fires through the central Blue Mountains area, tragically taking 200 houses with them (but thankfully no lives). But in our remote location we didn’t know that then (although I had seen a fire from the cliff-top the day before).

This fire that was just visible above the cliffs of the lower Wolgan Valley on 16 October turned out to be the ‘State Mine Gully’ fire that was sparked by an explosives exercise gone wrong on an army base west of Lithgow. When this photo was taken it was burning across Newnes Plateau, but by the next evening, driven by gale-force winds, it had reached Bilpin, nearly 40 km east of its ignition.

When we did get word, we packed up the next morning and travelled back home, into the mayhem. Mt Victoria was smoked in and my family was worried. One of the fires was quite close, but never threatened us directly. Backburning continued around the Mt York fire and elsewhere, in preparation for more dire weather on Wednesday 23 October. But a few millimetres of rain and the work done averted another potential disaster.

Backburn on the western slope of Mt York ridge, 22 October.

As I write, the immediate danger to most townships has passed, but the fires are still out there and getting bigger, impacting the World Heritage Area. Hundreds of firefighters are still working hard to contain the blazes. The State Mine Gully fire is advancing northwards into Wollemi National Park on a broad front, and if not held on Bungleboori or Nayook Creeks, will eventually threaten the same Wolgan rock wallaby colonies that we were monitoring.

Other big fronts are active in the upper Grose Valley, north of Springwood, north-east of Bilpin and in the top end of Wollemi. New fires (from lightning on 22 October) are spreading west of the Colo River and east from the Putty Road into Yengo National Park. A few days of benign weather (we had a frost this morning!) will give firefighters a chance to get on top of some of these, but we desperately need rain….and a lot of it.

A smoke-filled Govett Gorge, upper Grose Valley, 24 October. Blue Gum Forest, just out of the picture in the distant left, has been protected so far. The forest and the rest of the upper Grose burnt in 1982, 1994 and 2006, and doesn’t need another blaze so soon.