How the '57 Fires Unfolded

The Spring of 1957 The Spring of 1957 was hot and dry, which set the stage for a busy fire season.  September 1957 remains the driest September on record for Katoomba, and October and November experienced significantly below-average rainfall.

Rainfall in 1957 (mm)

Average Rainfall 1885-2013 (mm)

September

1.0

72.2

October

20.6

92.0

November

20.5

107.9

November 1957 was nearly five degrees warmer than average, with daily maximum temperatures frequently exceeding 30˚C.  The day of the Leura fires (2 December), the maximum in Katoomba was a scorching 34.4˚C.

These conditions allowed for plenty of fire activity before history was written in Leura on 2 December.  Several November fires are of note.

Fire Stories Pic 1

On 15 November, a fire in the Lower Mountains affected property at Warrimoo and Blaxland (Cunningham 1984). 2 properties lost.

 

Fire Stories Pic 2

On 16 November, a fire affected property in Lawson, Hazelbrook, and Woodford. 16 properties lost.

Tragedy in the Grose – 30 November 1957 It is likely that fires were smouldering in the Grose throughout November.  On Saturday, 30 November, nine boys set out into the Blue Gum Forest from Perry’s Lookdown on a bushwalk.  They could see the fires in the distance to the east.

Fire Stories Pic 3

After lunchtime, the group decided to walk up out of the forest, concerned over the fires.  Tragically, the fire front caught up with the boys.  Four boys lost their lives, and another four survived by running through the fire front and camping in a riverbed overnight.  The leader of the group survived, and ran to Blackheath, where he sent for help.

Surviving-boys-visit-memorial_1-1

The four surviving boys visit the memorial of their friends lost in the fire.

The Fires of 2 December 1957 The following narrative of the fires of 2 December 1957 is a product of eyewitness interviews, the research of Cunningham (1984), entries in the Occurrence Book held at the Katoomba Fire Station, and the sleuthing of Peter Bennett.

The fire season of 1957 made more headlines when over 170 properties in Leura and Wentworth Falls were burnt to the ground on 2 December.  Incredibly, no lives were lost.  The fire began around 12:45pm, reportedly originating near the tip in northeast Katoomba.  The Katoomba Fire Brigade occurrence book suggests that around 12:53 assistance was needed at Queens Road.  The fire quickly gained intensity, aided by hot ambient temperatures and strong winds from the northwest.  Just a half-hour later (1:25pm), the occurrence book notes fire at Acacia Avenue, all the way on the other side of northern Leura, to the east of Leura Public School.  The fire front affected much of northern Leura, consuming many properties from Queens Road in Katoomba through to the Leura Public School.  Flank fires ripped through Highland Street and moved south.  The loss of the Highland Street shops and Chateau Napier were properties burned by the fire front and recalled by several eyewitnesses.

By 1:46pm the fires in Leura were “out of control” according to the occurrence book, as the fire front and multiple flank fires (as described below) were burning.  Notes in the occurrence book about affected properties along Megalong, Craigend, and other southern Leura streets suggest the winds generated flank fires that moved to the south.

residents & hose

A flank fire on the western edge of Leura may have moved south, crossing Megalong Street before racing up the gully behind, or to the west of, Jersey Avenue.  This flank fire could have affected the properties along Jersey Avenue directly.  Ember attack was also likely, as witnesses recall the fire appearing to “jump” from property to property and aerial photographs confirm that some properties along Jersey Avenue and nearby Leura Mall were destroyed while neighbouring ones were unaffected.

The southeast of Leura endured heavy property losses.  It is possible that either the fire front proceeded this far before losing steam at the golf course, or a flank fire could have affected the area.

Google Earth - Leura

A Google Earth snapshot of Leura, overlaid with arrows designating the potential fire front and flank fires, as reconstructed from eyewitness stories, the Katoomba occurrence book, and other research by the research team and by local fire sleuth Peter Bennett. The orange area designated the area burnt and generally corresponds with aerial mapping by the local council later in 1958. 

 

While Leura fell into chaos, word spread that fires were burning in Wentworth Falls as well.  Properties along Blaxland Road, Station Street in the town centre, and along Mitchell Street were affected, among others.  It is uncertain from where the fires originated.  While the fires nearby at Leura appear to be an obvious source, it is likely that the winds from the northwest would have blown the fire clear of Wentworth Falls to the south.  Nonetheless, there is a chance that a spot fire from the Leura fires could have jumped the gully and run up to affect Wentworth Falls.  Another possibility is that the Wentworth Falls fires came up from the Grose Valley.  The spring of 1957 was unseasonably hot and dry, and fires had been burning continuously in the Grose.  Most notably, such fires were responsible for the lives of four young bushwalkers just two days prior below Perry’s Lookdown.  Given the winds from the northwest, fires burning in the Grose could have gained steam and entered Wentworth Falls.  Properties were likely affected by spot fires and ember attack, as the destruction does not indicate a major fire front as likely occurred in Leura.

 

A Google Earth snapshot of Wentworth Falls, overlaid with arrows designating the potential origins of the fires from Leura or the Grose, and the extent affected by fire.   The arrows and extent are reconstructed from eyewitness stories, the Katoomba occurrence book, records of property loss, and other research by the research team and by local fire sleuth Peter Bennett.  The orange area designated the area burnt and generally corresponds with aerial mapping by the local council later in 1958.  The spotty occurrence of property loss in Wentworth falls suggest indiscriminate ember attack rather than a run of fire through the town as in Leura.

A Google Earth snapshot of Wentworth Falls, overlaid with arrows designating the potential origins of the fires from Leura or the Grose, and the extent affected by fire. The arrows and extent are reconstructed from eyewitness stories, the Katoomba occurrence book, records of property loss, and other research by the research team and by local fire sleuth Peter Bennett. The orange area designated the area burnt and generally corresponds with aerial mapping by the local council later in 1958. The spotty occurrence of property loss in Wentworth falls suggest indiscriminate ember attack rather than a run of fire through the town as in Leura.

Fire Seasons in the Blue Mountains since 1957

1968 – A very busy season for the Blue Mountains.  Of note is a fire that burnt through the Lower Mountains and caused extensive property damage from Springwood through to the Nepean River on 28 November.  Arrow path and burnt area from Cunningham (1984)

1977 fires

Likely fire paths and area burnt of fires on 16 December 1977. Paths and area burnt are from Cunningham (1984).

1977 fires 2

1977 – Another busy season for the Blue Mountains. Notable fires include one on 16 December that affected property from Bullaburra to Linden, and one on 18 December that affected Blaxland and surrounding Lower Mountains townships.

1994a

Likely fire path of fires on 18 December 1977. Path from Cunningham (1984).

1994b

1994 – From 7-14 January, a fire made its way from the Mt. Wilson region, through the Grose Valley, and eventually to Winmalee, where it affected property. A wind change caused the fire to travel east and impact on Hawkesbury Heights, where six buildings were destroyed. Pathway reconstructed from case study presented in NSW Rural Fire Service (1998).

last

2006 – Two separate lightning ignitions, one to the east of Hartley Vale and one to the east of Mount Victoria, quickly proceed into the Grose Valley and burn out significant areas of Blue Gum Forest in the Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. Fire path reconstructed from information in BMWHI (2007).

Further Reading

BMWHI (2007) Report on Grose Valley Fire Forum, Mount Tomah Botanic Garden, Saturday 17th February 2007. Available at http://www.bmwhi.org.au/docs/gvff.pdf.

Cunningham, C. J. (1984) Recurring natural fire hazards: a case study of the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia. Applied Geography 4:5-27.

Cunningham and Kelly (1994) Awareness of Bushfire Hazards: A Case Study of the Blue Mountains, New South Wales, Australia. Proceedings of the New England-St. Lawrence Valley Geographical Society 24:67-83.

NSW Rural Fire Service (1998) A State Ablaze: The January 1994 Fires. NSW Rural Fire Service: Rosehill. Available at http://www.rfs.nsw.gov.au/file_system/attachments/State/Attachment_20050308_DFF87D81.pdf

Monthly rainfall data for Katoomba (1885-2013) – http://www.bom.gov.au/jsp/ncc/cdio/weatherData/av?p_nccObsCode=139&p_display_type=dataFile&p_startYear=&p_c=-794804881&p_stn_num=063039

Daily maximum temperatures for Katoomba (1957) – http://www.bom.gov.au/jsp/ncc/cdio/weatherData/av?p_display_type=dailyDataFile&p_nccObsCode=136&p_stn_num=063039&p_c=-794879644&p_startYear=1957