Blue Mountains landmark burns for first time since 1955

Visitors to the Three Sisters this week are seeing views not seen for decades as a large hazard reduction burn is underway.

Mt Solitary, south of Katoomba, was set ablaze on Tuesday [May 8] as part of a hazard-reduction burn that will cover about 3500 hectares, closing many popular walking trails of the Mountains for more than a week.

It is a “strategic burn" according to National Parks and Wildlife to reduce the bushfire risk to the townships of the Upper Mountains, particularly Katoomba, Leura and Wentworth Falls.

Tourists to The Three Sisters were looking at smoke rising from a region that had not been burned since 1955, Ben Shepherd, a senior spokesman for the Rural Fire Service, said.

That blaze was one of 19 burning on Tuesday as fire authorities rushed to take advantage of favourable conditions before stronger winds, some rain and a big cold snap arrives on Friday.

"It's a real touch-and-go weather pattern," Mr Shepherd said, adding that parts of the Blue Mountains may become too damp so that additional fuel-reduction burns will have to be put off until the spring.

For now, though, the RFS "is really pleased at how it's progressing", he said.

National Parks and Wildlife Service is in charge of the extensive hazard reduction burn and the NPWS area manager Vanessa Richardson said the 3500 hectare burn between Jamison Valley, Kedumba Valley and Narrow Neck plateau, south of Katoomba, started at 10am Tuesday.

 “Mount Solitary is the prominent landmark south of the Jamison Valley and smoke from this burn will be visible over a wide area,” Ms Richardson said.

“This a strategic burn aimed to reduce the bushfire risk to the townships of the upper mountains, particularly Katoomba, Leura and Wentworth Falls.”

The burn, which has been planned and then cancelled due to poor weather conditions on two separate occasions, has meant walks and canyoning activities in the Jamison Valley are on hold for several days.

 “All access including walking tracks and fire trails in the Jamison Valley, Kedumba Valley and Narrow Neck plateau will be closed for the duration of the burn from May 8 until the burn is complete and the area assessed as safe to reopen. This may be a week or longer depending on conditions,” she said.

 “Trails in the immediate zone surrounding Scenic World (Scenic Railway, Scenic Cableway) and the Federal Pass will be closed. These include: Dardanelles Pass loop walking track; Den Fenella walking track; Echo Point to Scenic World via Giant Stairway; Federal Pass; Fern Bower walk; Leura Cascades Fern Bower; Mount Solitary walking track; Narrow Neck trail; Round walking track; Ruined Castle walking track

Ms Richardson said those intending to use this area as training for the Ultra-Trail Australia Race on May 18 should observe the temporary trail closures, for their safety and that of potential rescuers should they become trapped or need other assistance.

 “Fire trails and walking trails in the Wild Dog Range area, West and South West of Narrow Neck Plateau including the Furber Steps will remain open.

“Residents are advised to keep doors and windows closed in the event of smoky conditions.

“The NPWS will take every opportunity to continue its hazard reduction program year-round,” Ms Richardson said.

The burns are some of the many hazard reduction operations undertaken by NPWS across NSW each year, many with the assistance of the NSW Rural Fire Service and Fire and Rescue NSW.

National Parks and Wildlife Service Blue Mountains director David Crust said the burn had involved “lots and lots of work” and planning.

“We had to cut kilometres of metre wide lines in the bush with hand tools and burn off those trails.” 

The entrance to the tracks were being manned to ensure walkers remained safe and numerous sweeps were made days ahead to ensure no-one was camping at the burn site.

Some 50 NPWS staff were on the fireground working on the complex burn. Fire equipment and crews were being flown into a helipad between Mt Solitary and the Ruined Castle.

He expected the area would be safe for teams to go in from Friday with chainsaws and check for burning trees. Most likely the area would re-open by the middle of next week, just in time for Ultra-Trail.

Blue Mountains RFS District posted on its Facebook page:  “This burn will generate very large amounts of smoke that may affect parts of the Blue Mountains and will be visible from many places. Residents in the area should not be alarmed, but please remain vigilant and don't hesitate to call triple zero if you can see a fire without fire fighters in attendance.

“All access roads and walking tracks into the Jamison and Kedumba Valleys will be closed during this operation. Cliff-top tracks and lookouts should remain open, however, visitors are advised to check the NPWS website for park closures or contact the Blue Mountains Heritage Centre on 4787 8877.”

This hazard reduction burn is part of the NSW Government’s $76 million package over six years to boost bushfire preparedness and double hazard reduction in the state’s national parks, where conditions allow.

For health information relating to smoke from bush fires and hazard reduction burning, visit NSW Health or the Asthma Foundation. More information on hazard reduction activities visit the Rural Fire Service and the Rural Fire Service “Fires near me” App.

Residents can keep up to date with trail closures by calling the Blue Mountains Heritage Centre on (02) 4787 8877 or visiting https://www.nationalparks.nsw.gov.au/visit-a-park/parks/blue-mountains-national-park.

NSW is still extremely dry after the state posted its hottest April on record, with average mean temperatures 3.3 degrees above average. Rainfall was just over one-quarter the norm. That drying means hazard-reduction burns around Tamworth and parts of the state's west have had to be curtailed this autumn because conditions remain so parched, Mr Shepherd said.

Authorities try to conduct their controlled burns in autumn before conditions turn cool and damp, and in spring, before they become too hot or windy, making fires more difficult to control.

Residents should watch for reports on the direction of smoke plumes and whether the air quality is deteriorating, particularly if they have any respiratory issues, Mr Shepherd said.

National Parks is completing the next stage of operations – aerial patrol and mop-up and undertaking the ‘make safe’ plan in order to re-open the closed parts of the park to the public by the end of May. 

The majority of the park will be re-opened by tomorrow (Thursday May 17).  A Parks spokeswoman said they asked people to “remain out of the closed parts of the park for their own safety.  Signage will be in place at these locations.” 

For safety reasons the tracks that will remain closed are Mt Solitary Walking track; Ruined Castle Walking track; Kedumba River Camping area; Kedumba River Fire Trail (after the intersection of the Sublime Point Fire Trail).

- with The Sydney Morning Herald.