On Wednesday 16 February 1983 dark smoke filled the skies above the Grampians. In my eight-year-old’s memory it was like the end of days, thick smoke rushing overhead, casting a dark pall over the day.
We had just moved up from Melbourne and were renting a tiny portable hut with no electricity on a bush block just down the road from the property where our new house was being built. We had no idea where the smoke was coming from, we didn’t have a TV, I am not even sure we had a telephone. When a neighbour informed us our property was on fire my parents decided to evacuate. They told us kids to choose a few of our favourite possessions. I packed my pillow.
It turned out our property wasn’t on fire. Those immense clouds of smoke were being blown more than 400km from the Adelaide Hills, where intense fires killed 28 South Australians (47 Victorian were also killed) – giving the day its name in the Australian lexicon, Ash Wednesday.
There were fires in the Grampians that summer though, and my memories are filled with its signs: passing CFA trucks in the school bus as they filled up from channels, vast plumes of pure white smoke towering into the sky above the ranges like a giant soft-serve ice cream; landscapes of trees denuded of green, broken limbs reaching to the sky like stiff, black fingers.
There have been many fires since, but a few stick in my memory. In 2006 there was a fire that started at Mount Lubra. For five days we watched the fire ebb and flow with the wind. At its worst, as the wind kicked up, it burnt into the back of our property. We wet down the walls of our house and flooded the gutters, as a terrifying wall of smoke towered above us, Elvis the Skycrane dipping its proboscis into the muddy waters of our back dam like a giant orange dragonfly.
Last year it was the main part of the Victoria Range that burnt, an area that hadn’t seen a major fire for 30 years or more. And this year, it was virtually the rest of the Grampians.
I had just finished climbing up on the Pipes in Hobart when my wife called to tell me about this latest fire. She was worried. The fire was north of my parent’s place, but the conditions were horrendous and it was moving quickly. I called my mum then and there, they could see the fires from their front window and I could hear the anxiety in her voice.
That night my little brother and I caught the last flight out of Hobart, intending to head up to the Grampians. But between us leaving Hobart and landing in Melbourne my parents decided to evacuate. As they drove out on the northern Grampians Road that night, there was fire on both sides of the road, and the police manning the barriers said there was no returning. My parents left thinking they would never see their house again.
The next day we all waited at my parents-in-law house for news. The fire swept over mum and dad’s at midday, but it wasn’t until late afternoon that one of our neighbours was free to drive over and see if their house had survived. It had. Other people were less fortunate though, down the road American climber Ray Lassman lost his holiday house (which was my grandmother’s old house), while the house of well-known climber Lincoln Shepherd and his family was also tragically burnt to the ground. Some locals lost houses, others lost their livelihoods.
Fire is nothing if not part of the natural cycle of the Australian bush. The fires I mention above are only a fraction of those that have occurred since I moved up to the Grampians as an eight-year-old. And it seems the fire cycle is only increasing in speed, which correlates with climate scientist’s predictions that there will be ever more disastrous weather events as our planet warms.
Since 2006 virtually the whole of the Grampians has been burnt at least once. The map below demonstrates this more clearly than I can say it: you can see the 2006 Lubra fire, last year’s Victoria Range fire and this year’s northern Grampians fire.
But what do all these fires mean for us as climbers? The main impact in the aftermath of large fires is that areas are closed, first while the damage is assessed, and then while they are given time to recover. These days areas often seem to be closed for ever-increasing periods of time. From my own observation, what I have read and from talking to Parks staff and people from the Victorian National Parks Association, there are a few reasons for this.
For a start, Parks has to assess the damage. This is a slower and bigger job that you might expect, as Parks is often still responding to fires burning elsewhere, while concerns about litigation are such that Parks has to check all the tracks it officially administers to ensure each one is free of fire-affected trees that could drop a limb on someone.
Tied in with this are environmental concerns. When an area has been severely burnt it basically incinerates all the organic matter, leaving the earth exposed and vulnerable to erosion. Severely burnt bush needs time to recover before people can enter back into the environment, particularly in areas where there is high visitation. There is also the question of replacing damaged infrastructure.
Adding to the mix, Parks is struggling to keep up with the number of disasters. And it’s not just fires, the 2011 flood caused massive (and very expensive damage) to some areas of the Grampians. In the aftermath of the floods it was Wilsons Promontory that received the lion’s share of the funding, while the Grampians languished. Not to mention the fact that at present it seems that as soon as Parks repairs one area, another disaster occurs creating a new set of problems.
Compounding this, each time there is a disaster I have been told that insurance covers less and less of the infrastructure. Two examples of this given to me are, say a footbridge has been burnt, insurance will now only cover the footboards but not the main structure. Or, if a road has been washed away to a depth of a metre, insurance only covers the top couple of inches of the replacement road. Each time this leaves a shortfall of money that needs to come from somewhere. And so we arrive at a larger part of the problem, Parks is being slowly starved of both money and staff.
Figures given to me by the Victorian National Parks Association show that Parks’ budget is less than one per cent of the state’s revenue, but once you take out the funding from Parks & Reserves Trust Fund (taken from a levy on Melbourne metro water bills) – which can only be spent on metro parks – then this falls to just 0.3 per cent of the state’s revenue to fund the management of 18 per cent of Victoria’s landmass. Staffing levels at Parks are also a problem. In the 2012-13 financial year, 70 full time staff were cut, while 66 were cut a year earlier and the State Government is planning more redundancies this year, a move that could take Parks’ staffing back to near 1999 levels.
I often hear people complaining about how slow Parks is to allow access to damaged areas – indeed I have had a good moan plenty of times myself, particularly when it comes to how risk-phobic it has become – but the truth is that if there is anyone we should be pointing the finger at, it is our governments.
But what can climbers do? First up, we need to stay out of the areas that have been severely affected by fire. One, because it good for our relationship with Parks, but most importantly because the environment needs time to recuperate.
The second thing we can do is where possible assist Parks in opening up areas. A good example of this cooperation is the big group that turned up after last year’s Victoria Range fires to help the Victorian Climbing Club’s CliffCare mark and clear tracks into many of the range’s most popular crags.
Finally, if you are really pissed off, you should write to your State and the Federal governments and tell them you want more funding for our national parks.
Climbers will need to be patient. As we have reported, areas around Hollow Mountain could be closed for up to a year. For those who are more adventurous, these closures could be a good spur to explore further afield in the Grampians, although also bear in mind that the Victoria Range is still a delicate environment post-fires, so please stick to marked trails as much as possible. It could also be a good time to reacquaint yourselves with the joys of The Arapiles.
And, at the end of the day, it’s worth remembering that crag access is only a minor inconvenience, particularly compared to the plight of many people who are dealing with destroyed homes, damaged properties and lost livelihoods.