In October 2013, a devastating bushfire blazed through the national parks and wilderness areas of the Blue Mountains.
Wollemi National Park and the Wollangambe Wilderness are wild and beloved areas. They lie flush with the north side of Bells Line of Road, far north of Katoomba and the more well-traversed regions of the Blue Mountains, fringed by the small townships of Bilpin, Berambing, Bell, and Mt Wilson. The bush out there forms a wet and luscious landscape, cut with scribbly canyons and waterfalls. Wombats roam, dingoes snuggle in their dens and giant orange yabbies sit poised on the river sand, waiting.
The fire in October 2013 – now known as the State Mine Fire – burned for four weeks and roasted it all to a crisp.
It emerged later that the fire had been sparked by an explosives exercise at the Marangaroo Army Base near Lithgow. There was a lot of anger and grief, a lot of questions and a coronial inquest as people came to terms with the massive loss of bushland, wildlife, property, and livelihoods.
It was just after this fire that my dad and I first visited the Wollangambe Crater, settled in the vast Wollangambe Wilderness. I had hiked and camped around many parts of the Blue Mountains and grew up canyoning in the Wollangambe and surrounding rivers – but I’d never wandered out there and simply explored.
Heading out along the ridges that first time, you could tell it had been hit hard. Freshly burnt shrubs striped my arms and legs charcoal.
It wasn’t until a few years and many trips later, however, that I realised just how bare it had been that first time. Over the years, the trees fluffed out with millions of new leaves, like they were wearing matching woolly thneeds, and the bush became verdant. Every time I went back, the sky unleashed a ferocious and regenerating rain which soaked into the dense, black soil, dripped from shiny gum leaves, and surged through the canyons.
On one of my last trips to the area, I spent a whole day in the crater.
It was the middle of winter, so cold that the water in my billy froze overnight, but the morning was luscious and sunny. The foliage in the supple depression of the crater was bright yellow-green and glowing in the wintery sunshine. I climbed up to a rock on the crater lip and lay there in the sun reading my book, all day. The next evening, I made a fire and watched the black silhouettes of the gum trees slowly fade into the night sky.
Seeing Wollemi burn again in the 2019–2020 fire season was devastating. The Gospers Mountain Fire burned for over two months and destroyed over 512,000 hectares of land including huge swathes of Wollemi National Park and the Wollangambe Wilderness. I watched as the fire front moved over the landscape I had come to know and love, before it finally consumed it.
Fire is a natural force shaping the Australian landscape, but this season was unprecedented.
The wombats I had seen along the banks of the Wollangambe – how could any of them have survived? The tiny birds that flitter down by the riverside – how could they breathe? Were the mossy gullies damp enough to make it through? The fire station at Bell was right on the bush – had it burnt down? Had anyone lost their lives? This place, the plants and animals, the sanctuary and protection it provided them – how much damage had been done? How could it possibly recover?
Last weekend, the canyons of Wollangambe having recently been reopened, I hiked out to the crater again, to revisit this special place, and to see how hard it had been hit.
The best way I can describe the bush out there is emptied. Quiet. You can see the rise and fall of the landscape straight through the blackened bone-like trees, which stand isolated and silenced. It feels crude somehow, and too revealing. Exposed, like the skeleton of something dead. Everything is ashy and dirty. Without the shrubs, the soil has loosened and slipped away in small landslides towards the riverbeds. As we walked down towards the creek, I reached out to charcoal mosaics on the tree trunks, coming away with ashy fingertips.
Some sections were relatively unscathed, especially down near the river. I could see that many pockets of bush had survived the blaze. In other places, it looked like the flames had just flirted around the base of the trees, leaving their high-swaying leaves intact.
But it was worse than I expected. Perhaps naively, I thought it would have recovered more by now.
It was just so quiet.
It reminds me that as I go about my life, there is so much going on out in the world which I don’t agree with: the prolific use of plastics, the product-driven, throw-away nature of Western consumer-capitalism, the way the meat industry operates, and how our elected politicians blatantly ignore and patronise the Australian population and supporters of the climate movement. And I need to stand up for those things.
As people who love the outdoors, we bring a unique perspective and are uniquely placed to value our incredible planet, and the incredible Australian bush.
For me, the wildness of Australia and the vastness of the bush is unique. It’s so special. As outdoors people, we are uniquely placed to advocate for the protection of these places.
Climate change can be felt on many levels. There’s no wrong way to connect with it.
It strengthens the movement when people come to it from different perspectives and bring new voices and ideas. It might help a few extra people understand how climate change will affect them, personally. It might help people to realise and to remember that it’s our responsibility to see clearly the impact we’re having on the world; what we’ve let happen, and what we’ve done.
Maybe for some people, the thing that connects them to the issue of climate change is the mammoth sense of loss that comes with extinction of species. The sheer amount of time it takes to naturally evolve a mouse or a whale from the primordial soup, the billions of years of chance and success and miniscule changes made real along an unthinkably long timespan, vanished in a few years. Maybe for others, it will be seeing the ashy deaths of our coral reefs, the pale shrunken brains of the corals, and shell-shocked fish. For others it will be human homes and lives and livelihoods. For many more it will be the thought of children. What will our future look like?
Sometimes it’s hard to feel things strongly about climate change. Stories about how bad things are can wash over you and never really hit home. Another species lost. Another oil spill. Another climate summit. Another international political agreement. Another patch of land, deforested.
Another devastating fire season.
Hiking deeply anchors the importance of climate change for me.
It reminds me to be brave, emerge from the comfort of anonymity, and say that I don’t agree with how things are.
Stay safe. Hopefully, we won’t need to stay home too much longer.
And if you have any intel about how other places are recovering from this fire season or any thoughts about the post, I’d love to hear from you.
References and further reading
SBS News. The images that have defined Australia’s horror bushfire season. SBS News. 2020. Available: https://www.sbs.com.au/news/the-images-that-have-defined-australia-s-horror-bushfire-season. Accessed June 2020.
Truscott, E. The State Mine Fire, (also known as the bushfire starting at Marrangaroo Training Area), Lithgow on 16 October 2013. State Coroner’s Court of New South Wales. 2019; 2013/324779. Available: http://www.coroners.justice.nsw.gov.au/Documents/Marrangaroo%20Fire%20Findings%20and%20Glossary.pdf. Accessed June 2020.
Virtue, R. In pictures: the devastation caused by the Lithgow bushfire. ABC Central West. 2013. Available: https://www.abc.net.au/local/photos/2013/10/30/3880127.htm?site=centralwest. Accessed June 2020.