On the afternoon of October 26, an unseasonably warm Saturday following a run of hot days, the wind picked up over the Blue Mountains and lightning stabbed at the ranges. One bolt made ground near a disused airstrip at Gospers Mountain, a densely grown area of the Wollemi National Park, and prickled the kindling into life. It would become the epicentre of the biggest forest fire to have started from a single ignition point that Australia has ever known.
Ken Mackett observed a plume of smoke curl above the ridge line from his home in Putty, about 30 kilometres north-east of the lightning strike, with a sense of unease. A volunteer with the Rural Fire Service, he knew that initially the National Parks and Wildlife Service would be responsible for putting it out. He also knew how difficult that task would be. Deep into the mountains, in country fractured by creeks, chasms and vertiginous escarpments, it was virtually inaccessible by land, and the bush had never been so brittle. After 10 years of below-average rainfall, the soil had become so dry that gum trees were keeling over and stacking up like a giant bonfire waiting to be lit.
“I’d been out there and it had been unburnt country for 50 or 60 years,” Mackett says. By the end of the day the blaze had expanded to an area of 521 hectares, but in residential areas surrounding the park there was still nothing to see but smoke. A week passed and then another. “It sat there for a really long time. And then it suddenly decided to come south-east.”
The Gospers Mountain fire has now destroyed an area seven times the size of Singapore – more than 444,000 hectares from the western border of the Blue Mountains to the Central Coast hinterland, north to the Hunter Valley and south to the Hawkesbury and past the Bells Line of Road. Three weeks ago it combined with several fires to form a vast complex that has been dubbed “the mega fire”. To those living in its shadow, it is known as “the monster”.