Blue Mountains ‘Mega Fire’ Blazes the Campbell Rhododendron Gardens

On December 21st , 2019—a day classified as “catastrophic” on the fire risk index—a massive bushfire reached Blackheath’s doorstep.  It had already burned nearly half-a-million hectares to the north of the Bells Line of Road terrain, then down through the Grose Valley.  

At 11:00am the Rural Fire Service website, ‘Fires Near Me’, posted a new outbreak, positioning its location marker right in the middle of the Campbell Rhododendron Gardens.  

From a distance this fire appeared to be further away, maybe on Ridgewell Road, but conditions were deteriorating rapidly and all attention was now focussed on the major line of fire-attack—the extremity of Hat Hill Road/ Pulpit Rock Road. 

Many residents evacuated their homes on the advice of authorities, and throughout Saturday night the town, amidst dense smoke, was a scene of frenzied fire-fighting activity in a number of areas.  

Then came a report that the Rhodo ‘Conifer Garden’ area was ablaze, but without verification due to access restrictions.

Extent of the Fire

On Monday morning everything in the Gardens seemed quiet again and Committee members and some Monday volunteers were able to venture onto the fire-ground to assess the situation.  

Fortunately, they found the ‘Conifer Garden’ area was intact, with the conifers unscathed, but almost all the large tract of native bush on the north side of the valley and the service road was severely burned.  

The fire had extended all the way from the swamp at the eastern end and out to Ridgewell Road on the north-western perimeter.  There was still much live fire activity in the burnt area, with tree trunks smouldering or flaming and ember beds alive on the ground.

Surveying the Damage

Sadly, it was discovered that most of the rhododendrons in the Species and the Quota areas had been destroyed, as had some plantings between the developed and the native areas on the north side of the creek.  

Even part of the swamp was damaged, due to ignition of methane gas which the area emits.  On the positive side, the high canopy of the gum trees remained minimally affected through this destructive inferno, and the firefighters had prevented the blaze from crossing the valley to the main developed Gardens area, saving the Lodge and other buildings.

Damaged rhododendrons

Long-term Process

At last, the native area of the Campbell Rhododendron Gardens has received a major hazard-reduction burn!  However, it’s unplanned happening certainly was far more dramatic than anyone ever anticipated.  Occurring as it did, in the midst of the lead-up to Christmas and 2020 celebrations, there is little that can be achieved immediately.

The Committee will meet with the Gardens’ Supervisor on January 6th 2020, when they will conduct a thorough review of the damage, and set in motion a remediation strategy. 

Although the native area will recover reasonably quickly, reconstruction of the affected plantings north of the creek will be a long-term process.  

Wayne Hanley

BMRS Archivist

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