As flames were circling in the gorge around the last known wild stand of prehistoric Wollemi Pine, the National Parks and Wildlife Service area manager Steve Cathcart made a courageous decision to be winched in on his own for several hours to fight the bushfire.
"It wasn't part of the [Wollemi] plan," he said. "Normally we would go down in pairs. I certainly wouldn't want one of my younger rangers or field staff making that decision, but I've been involved in fire for an awful lot of years. I wouldn't have done it if I thought it was too risky to others. But knowing the afternoon was going to get worse, it was a couple of hours window to do this."
It was part of an unprecedented environmental protection mission, to save the famous dinosaur trees from the Gospers Mountain Fire last summer. For those efforts, and his 30 years of dedicated service to the conservation of the state's natural and cultural heritage, the Parks area manager has been awarded a Public Service Medal.
While smoke made visibility difficult, he pumped water from the creek "using the irrigation system put in days earlier ... trying to repair the damage [to the burnt irrigation system]. It was a case of using what was there as best I could. It was incredibly frustrating and nerve wracking."
When he was winched back up later that day, in early January just over a year ago, he had hoped he had done enough. But he had extinguished most of the active fire at the site, saving these important trees.
Mr Cathcart was an integral member of the 'Wollemi Pine Operation' - a group of highly experienced firefighters and ecologists from Parks and the Rural Fire Service, specifically recruited to minimise the impacts of the fire on the pines. He helped develop and implement a plan to reduce the intensity and as air attack supervisor, coordinated air attack and on-ground activities and operations. He was also previously a patch ranger for the Wollemi National Park.
Mr Cathcart now manages the northern part of the Kosciuszko National Park. He said most of that fire period was "a bit of a blur".
"I went from a fire in Queanbeyan to the Wollemi to back to fighting fires in Tumut."
"It's an honour to work for National Parks ... hopefully this medal draws attention to some of that and the staff ... if you asked my family they would say all I wanted to do was work for National Parks.:
Winched in by helicopter, he and his team's heroic efforts saved the most significant ecological asset in the country. Today's recognition is well deserved and highlights the important service NPWS provides to our great state.Minister for the Environment Matt Kean
Mr Cathcart praised the years of advance work "of Crusty [Director Blue Mountains National Parks David Crust] and his team" on the pines, while Mr Crust praised Mr Cathcart's courage and exemplary service.
"The Wollemi Pines are an iconic species and a flagship for all threatened species. Steve's incredible work during the 2019 fires was absolutely critical in the fight to save the Wollemi Pines.
"His experience, skills, courage and innovation were the key to pulling together a complex and difficult operation involving a team of NPWS and RFS firefighters during unprecedented fire event. This award is recognition not just for Steve but for the entire team."
NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said "Steve Cathcart was a key member of the firefighting team that helped save the Wollemi Pine."
"Winched in by helicopter, he and his team's heroic efforts saved the most significant ecological asset in the country. Today's recognition is well deserved and highlights the important service NPWS provides to our great state."
The location of the Wollemi Pine in Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area is kept secret to protect it from disease.