The Mt Wilson storm: a devastating, frightening experience


The worst blow in 50 years! It did more damage than the huge snow storm in the '60s that snapped branches but didn't upend trees like this time.

That is the consensus view of long time Mt Wilson residents about the frightening hurricane force wind storm that hit the village on the afternoon of Tuesday 5 July and through the early hours of Wednesday morning.

The nearest weather station, Mt Boyce over the Grose valley, recorded a maximum wind gust on Tuesday at 7.15 pm of 139 kph, the highest wind speed recorded there since records began there in July 2003.

Anne Mayall at Oreades in Wynnes Rocks Road felt the full blast of the wind. "I thought of pictures of people facing a tornado in the US," she said. "The gusts from the west were very strong. Around 2.00 o'clock I felt calm but said to myself: 'Don't panic! Stay put. It's safest to be here'. It was a very strange, very frightening experience. My house is like a tree house as it's up on stilts. The glass in the new big windows was flexing and I had the sense that if I hadn't done the renovations the old house would have taken off and I'd have been like Dorothy somewhere over on the other side of the road. Severe gusts were blasting in. The Blue Mountains Ash were bending over almost touching the ground, and then springing back like someone was holding the tops of the trees, then whipping around backwards and forwards. And they fell all over the property. The wood shed was smashed but luckily they missed the new building and the water tanks. The trees dropped in slow motion. There was no noise but the wind when they fell. No vibration when they hit the ground."

Beth Raines

The stately Blue Mountains Ash (Eucalyptus oreades) is among the tallest of the hundred-odd eucalypt species found in the Blue Mountains.

The local response to the storm began shortly after the Mt Wilson/Mt Irvine Rural Fire Brigade was, coincidentally, called out at 2.00 pm to a pile burn that got away at Mt Tomah. However, the two brigade vehicles and five person crew couldn't leave the mountain because of a fallen tree across Mt Wilson Road near the bottom of the zig zag.

"At 2.30 pm the wind was howling and trees moving around dangerously so we just cleared one lane and went back up the zig zag only to find another tree down on the corner of Queens Avenue," Mt Wilson brigade Captain Beth Raines said. In addition to Beth in the response crew there was Peter Raines, Stephen Dean, Vic Zhukov and Peter Dempsey.

Meanwhile the Mt Tomah brigade advised they had their fire under control.

"The power was off all over Mt Wilson sometime before 2.00 pm," Beth said.

"A big branch fell so heavily across the power cables near the bottom of the zig zag they snapped a concrete power pole near its base. Later we realised there were power lines down everywhere.

"As we worked on clearing the tree at Queens Avenue a call came through for the first responders to go to Wendy Holland's home in Farrer Road West where an apprentice who had been working nearby with his boss had been taken with back injuries. A tree branch had fallen on him.

"With so many trees and power lines coming down including on Mt Irvine Road, Peter (Raines) and I had to take the brigade's Land Cruiser and the HiLux with the chain saws and the first aid gear through Wynstay, into Davies Lane, through Hillcrest Lane, down the power line right of way into Cathedral Reserve, across the road, up the unmade road on Lamb's Hill and around into Farrer Road West until we were blocked again by another tree. I walked the rest of the way to Wendy's house, provided pain relief for our patient and waited hours before the Lithgow four wheel drive ambulance managed to get through. Two other ambulance crews were sent to support the emergency.

"Eventually the ambulances got away but became trapped when the huge elms came down outside Withycombe. Finally they were able to be driven through the Withycombe property and out onto the road about seven hours after the young bloke had been hurt. Luckily it turned out he suffered only severe bruising."

While the medical evacuation was under way, the Mt Tomah fire brigade and council contractors and machinery had arrived in Mt Wilson. They helped the local volunteers clearing roads long into the dark of the evening. A large excavator with heavy lift jaws able to grab as much as a whole ute load in one bite made road clearing and log lifting much easier than man handling the fallen timber.

"That machine was worth its weight in gold," Peter Raines said.

A terrible night

It was about 6.00 pm when a huge radiata pine with a trunk diameter of around a metre smashed down from Liz and Paul Gow's property across The Avenue near Hay Lane. Outside the old school a eucalypt fell over the road bringing down the power line and making the road impassable there too. Many conifers and eucalypts around and behind the war memorial were felled by the wind gusts.

No sooner than the crews had at least one lane on the roads cleared than more trees were falling so with the ambulances departed and only the light of headlights available, work ended for the night.

The three great elms downed in The Avenue outside Withycombe have left a gap like missing teeth in what has been the famous and beautiful entrée to the heart of Mt Wilson.

At Wynstay the wind brought down seven of the magnificent avenue of Monterey cypresses planted in the 1890s and pictured on the cover of Alison Halliday and Joanne Hambrett's recently published book A Passion for Place: Gardens of the Blue Mountains. Wendy Smart said how fortunate she had been that the only property damage from the trees falling was a fly screen brushed off by flying debris. Elsewhere, like at so many properties, fences were down.

Scott Leonard at Sylvan Close on Mt Irvine Road said the sound of trees breaking up came over like gun shots. "During the night there were incredible cracks as trees sounded like they were exploding," he said. "It was a terrible night," Beth said. "No power. No light. Freezing cold. And the wind! I couldn't sleep."

At first light on Wednesday morning every road in Mt Wilson was blocked by fallen trees. And there was no power.

The Mt Tomah brigade was back in Mt Wilson on Wednesday and was joined by the Katoomba/Leura brigade under the supervision of incident controller Deputy Group Captain Peter Church from Blackheath. The visiting crews did a very big job clearing the zig zag.

Many Blue Mountains City Council workers and contractors worked throughout the village cutting away, moving aside, then collecting and dumping truckloads of smashed trees at the Silva Plana sports ground. The howl of chainsaws could be heard everywhere. They quickly cleared the roads.

The council reported cleanup work being done in freezing temperatures with a wind chill factor of as low as – 16 degrees.

One of the scariest and most dangerous moments on Wednesday occurred near the little track at the bottom of Cathedral Reserve leading towards the Cathedral of Ferns. Vic Zhukov, Graham Tribe and four council workers with the aid of the excavator grab were clearing a huge tree that had fallen near the bend on Mt Irvine Road. They had just stilled their chainsaws. As the men stood back about 10 or 15 metres while the excavator moved in to shift logs, four eucalypts crashed downhill out of the Cathedral of Ferns and onto the area where the men had just been working. Luckily the excavator and its operator also narrowly missed being hit.

Graham Tribe, Vic Zhukov, Peter Dempsey, Stephen Dean, Peter Richey, Ricananda Daly, Tom Bassett, David Howell and Tim and Kim Gow were among Mt Wilson locals who worked tirelessly on the clean up. At the fire station food, a barbeque and drinks were provided for the brigade crews, council and contractor workers by Moira Green, Judy Tribe, Kathleen Oakes, Libby Raines, and Helen Freeman who also did rounds to ensure everyone in the village who might need help was OK. Suzanne Bassett also checked and assisted people caught at home without power or heating. Lashings of sustenance were needed and contributions were brought in by Kim Gow, Sarah Howell, Maria Kelly, Elizabeth Montano and Minny Nicholas.

Elgas made urgent gas deliveries on Thursday to the fire station and customers who had had to rely solely on LPG for cooking and heating. As the contents of fridges and freezers gradually defrosted without power, barbeques saw a lot of cooking done throughout the villages. Generators proved a boon for homes fortunate enough to have one.

Devastation in private properties

In private properties large branches, huge trees and giant root balls some more than five metres across left devastation and a sense of terrible loss for people who in some cases have spent decades developing and nurturing gardens. Volunteers continued lending assistance for cleaning up at private properties over the weekend.

Explaining why some trees are more likely to fall than others in a wind storm, tree expert Joe Landsberg at Withycombe said that in general the depth to which trees put down roots tends to be associated with soil type, moisture and fertility. Joe has written an explanation on how tree and wind interact which can be read by following this link.

"If the soils are good and water not a limiting factor, as is the case on the basalt soils at Mt Wilson, roots are not likely to go particularly deep," Joe said. "Most of the root mass is concentrated in the surface layers. They 'trade off' growing big healthy tops against the risk of getting pushed over – and sometimes they lose."

Fortunately only minimal property damage occurred with a corner of roofing torn off Paul and Mary Roberts' home Brambil in Mt Irvine Road and their ute had a tree branch fall on it. Liz and Paul Gow's little Fairy Cottage was also damaged along with much harm done to their prized gardens.

On Yengo the Pigott's Parma wallaby reserve on Wyndham Avenue was largely denuded of trees but fortunately none of the wallabies appeared to have been hurt.

Some of the line of Norway spruces on Breenhold along The Avenue came down on the power lines and over the road.

Mary Reynolds at Donna Buang in Church Lane said how fortunate she and her husband Ellis were with their property being partly protected down the hill, only losing three or four trees but finding no fun surviving five days without power, heat or water. Luckily their son John was with them and able to help. "The damaging snow storm of the 1960s occurred in 1965 and by today's standards it was very severe," Mary said. For information about earlier storms she contacted her former neighbour at Nooroo, Peter Valder, who wrote the account which can be read by following this link.

Weather Map 10.00am 5th July 2011

Weather Map 10.00am 5th July 2011

Mt Irvine was not affected nearly so severely as was Mt Wilson but Alan Gunn, with help from Peter Richey on the chainsaw, was backwards and forwards on his tractor clearing Mt Irvine Road of tree debris between Mt Irvine and Cathedral Reserve.

At the time of the storm the weather bureau reported that there was a deep low pressure system southeast of Tasmania with an associated trough to the north both of which were moving slowly east. During the period of a few days, a series of cold fronts illustrated in the weather chart moved through the southeast of NSW maintaining very windy conditions. The bureau issued severe weather warnings for damaging winds and blizzard conditions for the Blue Mountains area and a sheep graziers warning was also issued.

"Natural disaster zone"

The state government on advice from the council declared Mt Wilson and other affected towns like Blackheath and Medlow Bath a "natural disaster zone" making possible state funding for the cleanup job.

"An excellent job was done by the council and contractor crews working with heavy machinery and large trucks seven days a week," said Bill Ryan, president of the Mt Wilson Progress Association. "They removed many, many tonnes of fallen timber and leafy debris, chipped it making a huge pile in Cathedral Reserve, and then trucking the material to dumps near the fire station that remain available for collection for use in gardens and paths. Endeavour Energy also did a really great job restoring power by Saturday evening despite the extreme conditions their crews faced during the time they were in Mt Wilson."

The cost to government of the cleanup throughout the affected areas of the mountains is expected to be more than $1 million. Details of the council's response to the storm are in media releases here....

Blackheath and the affected areas on the Great Western Highway with their much larger populations than Mt Wilson were the first priority for the major effort by power supplier Endeavour Energy. Endeavour was unable to dispatch the large crew numbers it did to Mt Wilson until Thursday.

Endeavour Energy's General Manager Network Operations Peter Langdon, the utility's incident controller overseeing restoration of the electricity supply, said all available resources were brought to bear to get the power back on.

"Supply to 100,000 customers was impacted after our network was hit by three storm fronts over two and half days with the winds causing unprecedented damage across the network," he said. "Our initial emergency response saw six storm centres opened at Katoomba, Moss Vale, Kings Park, Picton, Windsor and Nowra to coordinate the efforts of our emergency crews on the ground.

Concrete power pole snapped in two

Concrete power pole snapped in two

"From first thing Wednesday morning we had all available crews from Parramatta, Kings Park, Glendenning, Penrith and Windsor working in the Blue Mountains alongside local crews from Katoomba to commence the restoration effort. By Thursday, our own workforce in the Blue Mountains was complemented by additional crews from Ausgrid, Essential Energy and private electrical contractors."

Mr Langdon said Endeavour's crews worked long and hard to safely rebuild and repair its network in just four days, despite the prolonged, extreme weather conditions. Endeavour used both regular vegetation management crews and specialist tree climbing contractors to clear debris at Mt Wilson.

"The restoration efforts were hampered by the large number of fallen trees restricting access to fault sites on the network requiring a large excavator to clear a path for vehicles to undertake repairs," Mr Langdon said. "Crews from Katoomba were in Mt Wilson on the afternoon and evening of 5 July to isolate and make safe fault sites. Conditions were very dangerous with trees and branches dropping around crews while they were working. Twenty five staff and contractors returned to the area after the damaging winds abated and repairs to the network upstream from Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine were completed. Due to the number of trees blocking roads, a helicopter was chartered to patrol the area and assess the damage. Once access was established, multiple line trucks, an all-terrain elevated work platform and a large excavator were used in restoring supply to Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine.

"Due to the inherent dangers of working with electricity, one of the main challenges was to ensure the safety of our staff and the community while working in bad weather and difficult terrain. The most difficult repair was the main high voltage supply into the area that could not be inspected for damage until the broken concrete pole was removed.

"Endeavour Energy appreciated the patience and perseverance shown by the Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine communities while we worked to safely restore supply to all customers."

Telecom's exchange at the top of the zig zag lost power and automatically switched to emergency batteries as soon as the electricity was off in the village. However, the batteries were exhausted by Wednesday morning and it wasn't until that evening that phone and Internet services were up and running again powered by a generator Telecom brought in. No communications services throughout Wednesday made the response effort that much more difficult.

Beth Raines said she wished there had been an earlier opportunity to email a situation report to everyone on the fire brigade's contact list. However, with the intensity of the response activities, the Internet outage and few people available to assist it had not been possible to get a note out before Thursday morning as priority went to clearing roads and assessing damage to properties. Further email notes went out with updates on the clean up and power restoration.