The Worst Bushfires in NSW. Xmas 2001 – Jan 2002.
Christmas dinners were abandoned on tables and decorations deserted
to the ravages of wind and flames. From the south to north coast, Canberra
to the Hunter Valley, and the central west to Sydney, tens of thousands
of people experienced Christmas Day in varying degrees of terror, despair
and frequent bravery.
It was indeed a bleak Christmas Day for 5,000 men and women activated to fight 70 fires burning across NSW and the thousands of people scrambling to secure their homes.
Major roads and highways were closed to traffic, stranding motorists and throwing the travel plans of thousands of holidaymakers into chaos. Fires had roared through Mulgoa, Penrith, Warragamba and Kurrajong on Sydney’s outskirts, reducing homes to ashes.
Strong winds were blowing from the west at 90kph making it impossible to contain the blazes and causing countless spot fires. The bushfires had now closed roads across the state including the Pacific Highway on the north coast, the Princes Highway south, Great Western Highway in western Sydney and all roads south of Sydney to Wollongong.
The National Parks and Wildlife Service evacuated more than 3,000 people from the Royal National Park in Sydney’s south as fires flared nearby and all parks and remote walking tracks were closed until further notice. “We have little or no relief in sight with the weather and we expect conditions to worsen,” RFS spokesman John Winter said. “The fires are so erratic that crews are essentially doing nothing more than trying to protect property as the fire fronts come through.”
NSW Emergency Services Minister Bob Debus said it was beyond firefighters’ capabilities to save all property given the intensity of the fires. “There is always a limit beyond which it is simply not possible for anybody to protect property from a sufficiently intense fire
This was bad but within a few days the situation deteriorated. Firefighters faced 39-degree temperatures and fierce erratic winds in a house-by-house battle over the weekend, with bushfires worse than those on Christmas Day. The State’s emergency services were devising a strategy to try to contain up to 100 fires after conditions permitted some backburning and hazard reduction. The NSW Fire Brigades Commissioner, Ian MacDougall, said firefighters were facing an “awesome force”.
Mr MacDougall said: “Meteorologically, it would seem that we’re going to have a tough Saturday, tougher Sunday, and so we are doing our best with containment lines. “With the worst-case expectation that they don’t hold; and when the conditions are bad with high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds then it really is asking a lot for a containment line to hold, particularly when they have been constructed very recently. There is a prospect of more house-by-house firefighting as we have had in the Blue Mountains.”
Other serious threats remain in the lower mountains area near Blaxland and Winmalee; in Sydney’s south near Heathcote, Engadine, Bundeena, Maianbar and Helensburgh; the Hawkesbury region near Wisemans Ferry and Spencer; and the Central Coast near Peats Ridge. About 15,000 firefighters will work on rosters of 5000 a day. The NSW Rural Fire Service plans to use satellite imaging and infrared technology to map fire fronts.
Peats Ridge, Wisemans Ferry, Spencer, Webs creek, Wollombi Village and the Yengo and Wollombi National Parks are all surrounding the MacDonald Valley and the Village of St. Albans. Things were ‘hotting up’ for the local brigade.
There was so much smoke in the lower Blue Mountains and other areas,
that it became almost impossible for firefighters to identify fire fronts.
Smoke also prevented authorities from flying firefighters into otherwise
inaccessible bush to start work on danger areas.
However, Fires which devastated parts of the Blue Mountains were now largely contained thanks to backburning and firebreak operations. But, fires continued to rage in Glenbrook Gorge. In the Shoalhaven on the South Coast there was continued risk to properties around Sussex Inlet and St Georges Basin.
The small town of Spencer on the Hawkesbury River was still threatened
by fire despite large-scale backburning. Rural Fire Service Group Captain
Brian Williams said fires burning near the town had the potential to create
more havoc than the 1994 bushfire disaster. “It’s drier and the bush has
grown like I have not seen it grow before,” he said. “If it jumps the Hawkesbury
it will be like a steam train without brakes.”
Authorities were anxiously watching fires at Webbs Creek and Dharug National Park in the Hawkesbury in case the two joined near Wisemans Ferry.
If that happens the larger blaze would have access to a bush corridor leading south-west to Hornsby, about 40 kilometres away.
The fire at Webbs Creek was fuelled last week when it rushed through Colo Heights, north-east to Wheelbarrow Ridge, which is now burnt out.
Despite reports of spot fires near Putty, 50 kilometres north of Colo Heights, and small fires south of Colo River, authorities were continuing backburning along Putty Road, a deputy captain from the Rural Fire Service at Hawkesbury, Hilton Pollard, said.
“They’re worried mainly about the fire at Wheelbarrow Ridge [north of Colo] meeting up with one near Spencer,” he said. “If that happens it could go straight down to Hornsby.”
A Rural Fire Service spokesman, John Winter, confirmed that it was possible the Wheelbarrow Ridge Fire could meet the fire near Spencer. “That is one of our great concerns. What we have not had, so far, is any of that northern area from Wisemans Ferry to Palm Beach on fire.
Cessnock was also under threat as firefighters battled a huge fire front
bursting out of the Yengo National Park into farmland west of the town.
The township of Broke, north-west of Cessnock, was under extreme threat and firefighters were on standby to defend the hamlets of Boree and Wallabadah from a separate fire also coming out of the park.
An emergency control centre was set up in Maitland under the command of the local police area commander, Chief Superintendent John Trott. The Mount View High School was made available to people who might be evacuated from Broke and Wollombi.
The Mayor of Cessnock, John Clarence, said: “If it gets into the valley at Wollombi Brook, it could go into Wollombi township itself.”
Changing winds, gusting at up to 60 kmh sent the Yengo National Park fire into several directions and firefighters were diverted to the village of Laguna, as well as Wallabadah and Boree.
At Wollombi, which has a district population of about 2,000 people, Janeen Greig, who is secretary of the Wollombi Volunteer Bushfire Brigade, said people were just sitting tight but for the wider district a real problem would be created if the fire got into the Broken Back Range immediately to the west of Cessnock.
From the vantage point of a Rural Fire Service’ Bell 206 Jet Ranger helicopter, the “Bulga fire”, burning in the Wollombi National Park and threatening to burst into the Singleton coalfields in the Hunter Valley, looked so big as to be a lost cause.
A 900-litre bucket of water carried by another helicopter for dumping on burning trees at the edge of the Putty Road looked a mere thimble against a backdrop of 64,000 hectares of charred land.
The Bulga fire, almost certainly started by an arsonist on the Hunter Main Track and the Martindale Trail in the National Park on December 21, had broken through firebreaks on Tuesday. By Wednesday night it was threatening the tiny town of Broke, and large mining complexes were exposed to its northern flank.
Tom Ragnaf, the incident controller at Bulga, said: “If the coal dumps catch fire, it will be almost impossible to put them out. There are explosives complexes out there. There is a great deal of heavy industry. If fire gets into that, we are going to lose major infrastructure.”
A separate fire was burning 10 kilometres to the south in the Yengo National Park. It could link with the Bulga fire and it was capable of getting into the Broken Back Range and threatening Cessnock.
Help had Arrived.
By this stage help had arrived from other States and was rapidly deployed to relieve and augment local brigade members. About 100 tankers and 1,300 firefighters from Victoria, Queensland and South Australia and some from New Zealand joined the battle against the bushfires.
From Victoria the Country Fire Association deployed 750 firefighters to NSW since Boxing Day. The first contingent of 120 firefighters returned home on the Friday night after battling the bushfires for three days. The fire crews are being rotated back to Victoria after they have completed 72-hour stints.
From Queensland the 135-strong contingent from the Queensland Rural Fire Service had arrived in NSW. The support team includes two ambulances, four paramedics, mechanics and communications officers.
South Australia sent a total of 411 firefighters from the Country Fire Service.
All States sent Tankers and other appliances, to a hero’s welcome. Typically one driver commented “We are glad to be helping,” he said. “We look after each other. Firefighters are a worldwide brotherhood.”
Finally in early January the weather started to ease and finally rain;
making the mountains smell like a wet camp fire. Everything was wet. The
most blasted stretches of bush gleamed with rain. Gutters were running.
Not all the water carrying air-cranes ‘Elvises’ in Oregon could have done
the work of a few hours of ordinary summer downpour.
The signs mountain people had been nailing to trees to thank the firefighters were now sodden, some unreadable. Firefighters talk of stumps still smouldering in the ground and fire surviving at the heart of piles of wet ash. But the general verdict is that the mountain fires are out.
The rain fell gently at first. Showers had been predicted for the Sunday night so it wasn’t entirely a surprise, but at St Albans, Greg Bailey was dissapointed. “Bugger!” he said as the rain began to fall. Greg’s crew was just about to finish backburning right around Webs Creek mountain. He’s a happy man for the rain, but he knows there’s still bush unburnt behind a few houses. “We only had a kilometre to go to pinch it all in but, with the light rain, I gave the orders to stand down.”
But as Sunday night turned into Monday morning, rain began to fall heavily. This had not been predicted. It was no longer the sort of rain that made a mess of backburning and turns bush tracks to mud under the wheels of tankers. It was rain that douses fires: 30 or 40 millimetres.
Back at the St Albans fireshed at 1am with heavy rain on the roof the weary crews opened a beer or two and sat for a while, watching it come down. Next day St Albans still had crews on standby, but the brigade was almost deserted. A couple of people were hosing down equipment but. most of the troops were away somewhere sleeping, and the rest were in civvies at the Pub. Tom, the Brigade secretary, wouldn’t mind another day of downpour, but the sky was already clearing by lunchtime. It was hot but steaming.
On cliffs along the mountains, families were gathering to look at the
damage the fires had done to the bush. Those who came nearest to losing
their houses seemed least interested in the rain. It hadn’t saved them.
Once the fires had done their worst over the past few days they were safe
enough. The downpour means only that the mess is over - maybe for the summer,
maybe for the next few years.
Christmas Fires 2001 Ticker Tape Parade
Monday, 21 January 2002 - The Premier of NSW, Bob Carr, has announced that a ticker tape parade through the streets of Sydney will be held on Friday 8 February 2002 to recognise the contribution of all those who participated in the recent Christmas Fires 2001. A Friday has been selected as the day for the parade as weekend parades suffer without the presence of the tens of thousands of people who usually work in the city. It was considered that a Friday was probably the most accessible weekday for volunteers to attend.
January 2002 - NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Phil Koperberg has indicated that while the 22 day long bushfire crisis is effectively over, the work goes on for volunteer firefighters. "After one of the most protracted bushfire fighting campaigns in our State's history, it is clear that the weather has finally turned in our favour, easing the pressure on firefighters who continue to contend with a number of major bushfires," said Commissioner Koperberg.
"While the crisis point is now passed, the work goes on for our volunteer firefighters who will continue to monitor over 3200 kilometres of fire perimeter to ensure there are no breaks outs or re-ignitions of the fires."
"Throughout this bushfire crisis, our volunteers have been supported by their employers giving them leave or time away from work to battle the blazes. The community is indebted to these employers for their contribution to the firefighting effort. We do seek their continued support as the work goes on for our firefighters."
"Most of all, we need to recognise the bravery and commitment of our volunteer Rural firefighters, other emergency services workers and our interstate colleagues. There is no better testimony to their efforts than the more than 15,000 homes saved and no lives lost despite the most horrendous of fire conditions. The community of NSW owes them a debt of gratitude which simply cannot be repaid,"
Firefighters will hunt down every smouldering piece of debris in the
state as part of a mammoth mopping-up operation in coming weeks, as fresh
spot fires broke out in the Shoalhaven. With more than 80 fires still burning,
the Rural Fire Service is co-ordinating a patrol of hundreds of kilometres
of burnt-out ground, monitoring flare-ups and dampening down amid fears
the dry conditions could cause a new crisis.
Even in late Janurary some fires were still causing concern. The Deua National Park fire in the Eurobodalla shire and the Yengo National Park fire west of Cessnock. The Bulga fire near Singleton and the Nattai fires south-west of Sydney were partly contained, the RFS commissioner, Phil Koperberg, said.
After touring the burnt areas, the Minister for Emergency Services, Bob Debus, warned that the fire season was not over “by any means”. Mr Koperberg [the RFS Commisioner] said the massive task of checking every fire scene would begin, using technology such as thermal imaging to detect different ground temperatures. “Every single tree within a kilometre of the fire reach, every bit of burning bush, twig, branch, whatever has to be firstly detected and then ground crews or waterbombing aircraft have to be sent to that to ensure it is completely suppressed,” he said. Fires could smoulder for weeks in tree roots, regardless of rain, then flare in dry conditions.
So there you have it, We as members of the small St Albans Brigade have
been proud to have played our part, with lives and property intact, and
we are even better equipped to handle the next ‘big one’.
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