History of Fire at Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine

This brief history of fire was compiled with the assistance of Beth, Peter, Keith and Libby Raines, Paul and Helen Naylor and Ruth and Bill Scrivener.

Our knowledge of this fire comes from an account written by Edward Knight Brown of 'Painui' not long after the fire occurred and kindly lent by Helen Naylor. The following is a summary.

Summer was hot and dry and the grass was all burnt from the heat and hot dry winds. On the morning of 13th December, Edward's two sons set out on horseback for Bell Station with the cattle, which were to be sent by rail to Mudgee. There were bush fires in every direction with a 'howling' North West wind. When they reached Mt Wilson 'they had to rush the cattle into the fire to get them through, after a break back on the part of the mob, causing no small anxiety to the drivers'.

Back at Mt Irvine Edward was checking the spring to make sure the water supply was in order when black smoke from the west darkened the sky and flames a half mile wide appeared. His first thought was for 20 milking cows and he ran through falling branches and bark to their paddock which was by this time ablaze. Some cows were missing and nothing could be done for the silo so, with cinders falling and Edward's shirt catching fire, the cattle were rushed down the hill to the homestead. Meanwhile his daughter had rounded up most of the sheep to safety.

Dead stumps in the clearing round the house had caught fire and from the homestead they could see that the sawmill on their neighbours property (the Andersons, below Mt Irvine Road opposite 'Painui') was on fire. Mrs Anderson and her 2 children fled to 'Painui', having lost everything apart from what they were wearing. A log fence near the barn caught fire and the family and their assistant, Alfred Howe, worked to keep the buildings (barn, house, stable, cart shed) from burning. The children meanwhile 'screamed themselves almost into fits'. Fires started in all the buildings but fortunately at different times and they had a good water supply. Only a few outplaces were burnt.

At 6.00pm the wind changed and everyone collapsed on the lawn, exhausted. Not long after a whirlwind came along, gathered up all the embers and once again buildings were threatened by a shower of burning embers. It took an hour before the buildings were safe. At 11.00pm the two sons arrived home with their horses.

The fire continued for several days around them but they were out of danger. All the fences were damaged, the log fences destroyed, nearly all the grass destroyed, the crops smashed down with debris, 6 acres of oats scorched, all the shelter sheds burned and numerous fruit trees scorched. On Friday 17th they cut the oats to feed the now almost starving stock. Some of the fat lambs were sent to Sydney and all except for 6 of the cows were turned out into the unburnt scrub to look after themselves. This all but closed down the diary. The following Wednesday the rain started – 14 inches in 60 hours, sweeping away hundreds of tons of soil from the orchard.

Within a fortnight Mt Irvine had experienced drought, fire and flood.

Fires usually come from the north and west but the fire of 1957 came from the south. There were a number of fires around Leura that year, one of which did enormous damage at Leura and it was thought that it was that fire that crossed the Grose to Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine. There was a very strong wind blowing and the story is that it travelled '20 miles in 20 minutes'. Sid Kirk was on Wynnes Rocks Road and saw it jump to Mt Banks then skip across to Mt Wilson.

You will note that on the Zig Zag now there are no very large sassafras trees, as they were all burnt. The big eucalypts survived because those eucalypts can reshoot from epicormic buds (buds underneath the bark) whereas the sassafras trees have to reshoot from the roots.

The fire continued to the south of Mt Wilson creating spot fires below Jalscene and Merry Garth. Once again the vegetation gives us the clues as to the progress of the fire. One of the loveliest sights is the stand of Mountain Ash from Zircon Creek along Mt Irvine Road. They are tall and slim and all the same size. Mountains Ashes do not sprout from epicormic buds or lignotubers but rather from seed. These stands all arose from the ash after the 1957 fires.

When they heard of the fires the Naylor family came up from Sydney via Bowens Creek Road. The fire had reached the road and the wooden culverts were alight. Ron ordered the family out of the car and drove at speed over the culverts – just in case they collapsed. The fire continued around Irvinholme and one of the sheds caught fire from radiant heat. Helen's mother, Marjorie Morley, then in her sixties, put it out with a leather beater and buckets of water.

The fire destroyed the Mt Irvine School (where the current hall and tennis court are located), the home of Miss Jacob (now Willowbank), who had the telephone exchange, and Charlie Clarke's cottage (below Mt Irvine station). It also burnt the garage at 282 Mt Irvine Rd and the steps and garage at Corybas. Peter Kirk and Bill Brown were fighting the fires with knapsacks at Mt Irvine. At Corybas they cut the top off the water tank and used buckets of water to fight the fires. Fire fighting equipment in our two villages has definitely changed!

Children who were staying at Bowenlea with Nell Knight-Brown and at Taihoa with Ruth Scrivener were taken to shelter in the middle of a paddock (Painui) and covered with blankets. Ruth Scrivener, with daughter Vicki being not yet two, remembers being terrified and, although a country girl, had never experienced bushfires. Nevertheless, she shut the windows, filled buckets and soaked a blanket to use in putting out the flames.

Meanwhile Bill Scriverner was stuck at the Zig Zag. He couldn't drive up so walked up and met Jack Gunn. After clearing the Zig Zag they went and put out the fires below Peter Kirk's place (he was out at Mt Irvine).

After the fires the Southern, Sunday Ridge Spur and Northern fire trails and around Lamb's Hill were all built (probably laid out by Tom and Peter Kirk and built by Jack Tolhurst) and a dam constructed on Dane's Way. In January 2002, the dam was cleaned out only to be destroyed in July 2002 by National Parks personnel who, not having consulted the community, did not realise that the dam had been there for 45 years!

The 1957 fires were the start of a more organised 'Bush Fire Brigade'. About this time the old fire shed at Mt Wilson was built to house a truck from Headquarters and sometime later a small 4 wheel drive ute. Prior to this the Kirks, Gunns and Morleys all had their own trucks that they used to fight the fires.

There were a lot of fires in NSW in 1968 and several came to Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine. A heavy fall of snow in 1967 meant that there were many dead branches to act as fuel for any fires. Some spring clearing at Glen Davis started a fire which you could see from Cecil Kirk's mine at Mt Irvine. Paul Naylor remembers watching this fire for months and it finally arrived on 27th November. He remembers being in the blitz with Kevin Gunn and Ed Knight Brown, coming down Danes Way and over Scrivener Pass through a tunnel of flame. The fire came slowly around Danes Way to Touri, then owned by Paul Finato. The spare wheel carrier of the blitz got caught in the hills hoist and, although they saved the property, Mr Finato was upset about the hills hoist!

Libby Raines remembers going out to Gowan Ross where Jane Smart was busy making meals for the firefighters. She and Bill Smart drove up to the top of Farrer Road and then down to meet Ron Smart, Alan Gunn and others who had a truck with water. The fire came up over Lambs Hill and burnt to Boronia Point and Farrer Road West. Libby remembers the men fighting the flames with knapsack sprays. She stayed on the back of the truck directing water from a short hose and helping to fill up the knapsacks. The men all worked long hours and used to snatch a few hours' sleep near where they were working. They did not go home to sleep. Libby, Ruth Scrivener, Jane Smart and others made tea and sandwiches and drove them out to the men.

Fire kept coming from the west and another came from Bowens Creek to Fields Selection toward Zircon Creek. On 29 November it started to rain and helped extinguish the flames.

It was during this fire that the Brigade first put in the rake hoe line which linked the end of the Southern Fire Trail up into Waterfall Creek and across it and up on to the ridge below Boggy Bend. Each time there has been a fire this line has been opened up again. The Boronia Point Fire Trail went in during and after this fire.

On 26th December lightning started a fire at Lost Flat Mountain, North West of Mt Irvine. It is standard procedure now to send firefighters to remote areas by helicopter but perhaps this was the first example of a RAFT (Remote Area Firefighting Team). Alan Gunn, Paul Naylor, Mike McLean and Ed Knight Brown climbed into a Channel 7 helicopter and flew off. The helicopter had no door and Paul's seatbelt jammed. Although he eventually got it on, he thought he was going to fall out as the helicopter took off. Tinned peaches that they were taking for food rolled across the floor of the helicopter, out the door and down into the Wollangambe.

The helicopter landed in a swamp as that was the only flat ground. The only tools they had were 20 litre metal knapsacks and McCloud tools (rake hoes). Once they were out of water, Alan and Paul found a soak which they dug out to replenish their water supplies. They managed to contain the fire. The helicopter had left for another fire at Warragamba and did not return till nearly dark to take the men back. The helicopter pilot later commented that it was his most hazardous flight since Vietnam.

This fire was remembered as one for which hung around for days and for which many resources were provided – brigades, police, army, helicopters, bulldozers and canteens. It started at Newnes on 21st December. At Mt Wilson it was remembered at first as being very smoky and still. It made a few runs on the north side burning out beneath 'Kookaburra Kottige','Pine Lodge', Du Fours Rocks and Wynnes Rocks Road. It crossed over' Breenhold' near the Hall and Ron Gunn talked about fire balls over the Village Hall area. It was kept out of the forest near the Zig Zag but it took off over the end of Wynnes Rocks Road (there were no houses there then) and then wound round the south side of Mt Wilson and took off to Mt Tomah arriving 20 minutes later. A home and several sheds were lost there.

At Mt Irvine they watched it night and day from Cecil Kirk's mine. The army sent 60 personnel to build a trail to the Wollangambe. The fire, pushed by 50 knot winds, bounded up out of the Wollangambe to Yurunga 'like an express train'. Helen Naylor remembers driving through flames up Danes Way with food for the fire fighters. It went straight through number 40 Danes Way. Danes Way became impassable and, as they were worried about properties on Mt Irvine Road, they had to drive across country. The smoke was so thick that the firefighters could not see the gates to properties and had to cut their way through fences. The brigades that came to give our brigade a break could not see either the gates or the cuts in the fences and had to cut new ways through. That fire created good work for fencers!

The fire calmed down and brigades were allowed to go home for Xmas. Our brigade stayed on patrol for Xmas Day from 9.00am till 10.30pm.The Xmas meal was Sao biscuits and tea at Cecil Kirk's. Boxing Day brought rain and thick fog.

Brigade members had worked up to 22 hours a day; Paul remembers his brother Geoff and Alan and Ron Gunn having two hours sleep at Irvineholme. The Fire Control Officer at Katoomba noted that the Mt Irvine Studebaker had done more hours than any other truck in the Blue Mountains during the fire period.
It was during this fire that the fire trail, from the 'Field Selection' road down across Zircon Creek and through the main forest below the Mount Irvine Road and coming out at that road just beyond Farrer Road East, was constructed.

This fire started at Bell as a result of welding on the railway line. It burnt out Bells Line of Road and parts of the 5 mile. The road was closed for hours. Beth Raines remembers being stuck on the school bus at Bell. To keep her entertained, the driver (her father) gave her coins so that she could go and buy chips and sweets at the petrol station that was then located there. Not all memories of fire are bad!

Eventually, the school bus was escorted though and Beth remembers burning trees, stumps and logs all along the way. Cecil Kirk talked about fire balls from the burning sap of the eucalypts flying hundreds of feet into the air.

It is hard to believe that the verges of Bells Line were kept so clear of vegetation that you could see round corners and see part of the 5 mile from Bells Line. This clearing is no longer practised and you can see that the trees on Bells Line are not very old and all the same age.

The Fire Commissioner, Phil Koperberg, announced that 'the state is ablaze' and foolishly commented that the exceptions were the Blue Mountains and Royal National Park. Sure enough, the next morning they too were alight. The fire started at the dump area on Bells line of Road, just west of the Mt Wilson turnoff. The 5 mile was blocked within an hour. More fires appeared as soon as they were put out. The main head of the fire went across the 5 mile and across Bells Line of Road between Mt Charles and Mt Banks. Some days later it came back round Wynnes Rocks Road and up under The Cabin.

Interstate brigades were called in to assist. South Australian brigades stationed at Wollangambe were appalled at the fire in the trees as they were only used to grass fires. Bowens Creek Road was also blocked and both villages were isolated. The smoke in places was thicker than fog .There was no power for days. Finally, a generator was brought to the Zig Zag to give Mt Wilson power.

There was huge support from the village for this fire, helping with cooking meals which were served in the Village Hall. A number of brigades also slept in the Hall, the Study Centre and other places. Libby remembers that she always did the early shift at the Hall, stepping over sleeping bodies to reach the kitchen where she did the all the night time washing up and then set up the Hall, as the dawn came, for the breakfast cooks. She remembers that ladies were not welcome on the trucks in those days but now we have a female captain!

It was during this fire that the rake hoe line from Wynnes Rocks Road down to the bottom of the Zig Zag was put in. It is reopened when there is a fire.

The strategy for fighting fires used to be to wait until it arrived. Nowadays, with the use of water carrying aviation and RAFT, fires can be fought and contained where they start. During the 2012/2013 bushfire season there were approximately 10 fires to the north and west of our two villages, all contained with this strategy. The downside is that the bush does not get a chance to burn so if any fires escape containment the risk to Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine is greatly increased (see 2013 State Mine Fire).

Senior Deputy, Peter Raines, wrote the following description:

This fire travelled fast.

To give people an idea of the speed of this fire, it started on Wednesday 16th October at the Lithgow army base at Marrangaroo. Overnight attempts to contain it were unsuccessful and, though it was predicted that it would get to Clarence on the Thursday afternoon, it made it all the way to Mount Tootie. On its way it ran the full length of Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine, running into our streets and properties in a number of areas at the same time. It impacted on Church Lane, Farrer Road, Smiths Road, Scrivener Pass, Danes Way and the north end of Mt Irvine all on Thursday afternoon and evening.

Much good work was done to save the properties that were saved and huge thanks must go to the visiting crews that assisted with this work – Hawkesbury Strike Team, Hornsby Strike Team, NPWS crews and Blue Mountains Crews. These crews, along with our local brigade, managed to save many properties and secure the majority of the north side of Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine before dawn on the Friday.

I spent much of the first night of the fire travelling back and forth from Mt Wilson to Mt Irvine checking on the hot spots, assisting crews with local knowledge and getting back burning operations underway. I hope this account will give local people an insight into how much was achieved that night and how close we came to losing many more houses.

In the 1994 fires, it took us five days to back burn around Mt Wilson and out towards Mt Irvine – we got as far as Touri. In this fire, by dawn on Friday the majority of the north side of both Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine was black. In less than 12 hours, we blackened from the corner of Denarque, right down the north side, around the end of Mt Irvine and back under Tallawong and Bowen Lea – with only a few hot spots still going around Lambs Hill, Touri and Scrivener Pass.

I first heard of the fire after ringing M & N Produce at Marrangaroo for some fencing materials. They are located opposite the access road to the army base and hence knew that RFS crews had been unable to get access due to unexploded army ordinance. I rang Fire Control and followed its progress that afternoon, recognising that there was a good chance that the fire could come our way. I requested both a bulldozer and grader on Wednesday afternoon so that we could start preparing our fire trails. This was followed up a number of times on Thursday, but although promised, they did not arrive until Friday morning after the fire front had been through.

We are very fortunate that the fire took a run to the north of Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine, not straight over the top of both villages. The timing in the early evening was also better than getting it mid afternoon.
After it spotted over Clarence Colliery and the Hanson Sand Mine, the fire started its run into the headwaters of Yarramun Creek. At this point, we thought the fire would hit Mt Wilson around Breenhold, the Fire Station, School and the back of Church Lane.

Soon after this, the wind changed to a south westerly, and the fire started a massive run, parallel with Mt Wilson. It pushed around the end of Mt Wilson to the north, before disappearing in its own smoke. We needed more crews to assist us, but by this time there were other fires at Mt Victoria and Winmalee and Yellow Rock. Knowing that all crews in the Mountains and Lithgow were busy, we requested crews from the Richmond side. At this point we only had our three trucks and the Cat 9. I told Fire Control that we would save what we could with what we have. Crews were positioned at Church Lane and Mt Irvine Road (from Pine Lodge to Cathedral Reserve).

After a run out to Farrer Road and Smiths Road and finding thick black smoke coming out of the valley, the decision was made to take most of the Farrer Road residents back closer to home and set up to defend what we could with the Cat 1 and Cat 9. The Pumper and Cat 7 set up to defend areas in Mt Wilson. About this time, a couple of other mountain crews arrived and were slotted into properties on Mt Irvine Road and Church Lane to defend them when the fire emerged from below. Once on Farrer Rd, the Cat 1 was set up to defend Wedgewood, while the Cat 9 patrolled the rest of Farrer Road. Communication was via landline back to the station as the terrain prevented the fire ground radios and mobile phones from working. The fire soon crossed the Wollangambe and started its run up the hill.

We then received news via the landline that the fire was impacting on the end of Mt Irvine around Irvineholme. Allen Hyde and I headed to Gowan Ross for a ute and started out to Mt Irvine. On pulling out of Farrer Road East, we met two trucks from the Hawkesbury Strike team headed for Mt Irvine. By Scrivener Pass we could see the fire rapidly approaching and I was concerned about being able to get back, so I decided to put Allen onto one of the trucks to complete his trip and I managed to slip back though Scrivener Pass just before the fire arrived.
On arrival back up to Wedgewood I could see the fire racing up the side of Smiths Hill. I quickly returned to Gowan Ross to pick up my truck with the tanker trailer attached and raced up to Smiths Hill to try to save my shed. Driving up the hill, I could see that Wedgewood's shed was well alight and knew that in another ten minutes my shed at Smiths would probably be the same.

Thinking that the shed would probably burn, I moved a ute and bobcat out into the paddock and set up the tanker trailer above the shed in the paddock away from the trees. After some issueswith hose fittings, I managed to get the pump going and dial-a-jet on the hose ready to go.

After an unsuccessful attempt to phone for help, I jumped in the ute and raced back down to Wedgewood where things had quietened down after the fire front had passed. I got a drip torch off the Cat 1 and asked David Howell who was Crew Leader if he could spare Tim Gow to help me save the shed.

Tim and I jumped in the ute and flew back up to Smiths. With one drip torch and 800L of water in the tanker trailer, we managed to save the shed, though not without a bit of excitement. In between, I raced over to Taylor's block and put out wood chip around the house that was burning.

On the way back, I kicked some embers off a stack of timer slabs I had in the paddock, thinking that this had saved them, only to look over later and see them well alight with no hope of saving them. With the burn completed most of the way around the shed, the pump ran out of fuel.

Tim went back to Wedgewood for fuel, while I stayed to watch the edge with the pump now running on drip torch fuel. Since I had been unable to get a phone call out during all this, due to no mobile phone coverage in the area, Beth was quite concerned, as she had not heard from me since I had headed out to Mt Irvine, hours beforehand. Out of the smoke came our Pumper and a Blue Mountains Cat 1 – the Pumper headed out to Taylor's and the Cat 1 assisted me for a bit before heading back up to Farrer Road West where the fire was now closing in.

Meanwhile, the Hawkesbury strike team had made it to Mt Irvine just in time to save four houses at the end of Mt Irvine. From reports the fire was still a couple of ridges back from Mt Irvine when it spotted into the valley on the Bowens Creek side and took a run out of the valley threatening the houses at the end of Mt Irvine – Irvineholme, Booralee, Chesterman's and Dougan's. There was some great work done by this strike team, the crews from NPWS, property owners and family to save these four houses. The fire then moved in under Mt Irvine Road and reduced intensity due to running into the areas that were hazard reduced over the last couple of years. During this time, crews attempted to access Danes Way but were stopped by fallen trees at the cemetery on Danes Way. With fire still burning in this area and big trees still falling, they retreated back off Danes Way.

Back in Mt Wilson, a Strike Team from Hornsby had arrived with a fresh crew for the night shift.
We stood most of our crews down, knowing that we would have a busy day the next day. The Hornsby team were split up – two to Mt Irvine, one to Church Lane and two to back burn from Cathedral back to under Church Lane. The fire had overrun both the outer fire trail and the inner fire trail at the back of Church Lane, and was in under the houses Donna Buang, Nooroo Cottage and Farcry. A Hornsby crew from Westleigh did a brilliant job throughout the night, working up to half a kilometre from their truck for most of the night. They wrapped up the edges at the back of Donna Buang and Nooroo Cottage before continuing the burn though very difficult terrain, from Farcry under Koojanup Park to join in with the crews working back from Cathedral. A portable pump was taken down though Farcry and plumbed into a 200,000 tank under the maple barn in Koojanup Park. This allowed the crews to wet line the fire edge as it was impossible to get trucks into this area. By morning, the fire had joined up with the back burn, and the area from Cathedral right back to Denarque was burnt out.
At 7.00am on Friday morning the plant arrived – two dozers, one trackscavator and one grader.

One dozer was deployed to link the fire edge at the back of Denarque back to the fire station. The fire was just starting to get into the piles of timber at the bottom of Denarque, so the Cat 1 was also deployed here to work on putting it out.

For most of the night as I moved back and forth between Mt Wilson, Farrer Road and Mt Irvine, I had been trying to find an opportunity to get up onto Danes Way. Knowing that with all the trees across Danes Way, I would have to go up though the properties from Mt Irvine Road. About 5.30am things had quietened down a bit, and the night shift crews were close to completing their tasks. We started on a mission to get up to Danes Way via the paddocks of Kookootonga. After many gates and a few laps around paddocks looking for gates, we emerged onto Danes Way mid way between Mending Wall and Carisbrook. Unable to go left due to fallen trees, we went right, up and over the bank to get around fallen trees at times. Upon reaching Carisbrook we found the
smoking ruins of the house and three sheds with the front gate still locked. We continued on towards Yurunga, our path blocked by another big tree across the road.

Back past Carisbrook and down the side fence past Carruthers and Nicholas (both of which were still standing) across and out Nicholas driveway back onto Danes Way, at the gate of Yurunga we discovered a burnt out car still smouldering. Cold shivers ran down my spine as I examined the driver's area and looked around the paddock as the first rays of sun started to arrive. A quick drive over to Yurunga house also confirmed that this had also been lost. Much was learnt from this emergency. A few key things were highlighted.

  • Water Access - During property protection, it's important to be able to plumb the trucks into a large static water supply at the property that is being protected, with an area for the trucks to be safely parked.
  • Fire Trails- the importance of inner and outer fire trails being well maintained and ready to use to protect Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine.
  • Asset Protection Zone – having a well-defined asset protection zone around infrastructure property/houses and sheds is crucial.
  • Property Maintenance – Prior to fire season, ensure area around house is cleared, grass is kept mowed, gutters cleaned and leaf litter removed.

We had a great response from many people in all the different roles, including community liaison officers, street co-ordinators, station officers, catering and crews on trucks. There was a good turnout of newly trained fire-fighters as well as some people we have not seen for a while. Thanks to all for your dedication and hard work.

Those who have experienced fire at Mt Wilson and Mt Irvine are adamant that the best strategy for residents is to prepare their property (link to website) – clear vegetation and wood piles around the house, clear gutters, have pumps in good working order and hoses that reach all around the house. Write as Bushfire Survival Plan for all the family (link to website) and have a rehearsal at the beginning of the season so that everyone knows what to do.