What Happened to Taipan?
Northern Grampians locals flee, describing fire in places climbers know all too well
At 12.30pm on Thursday, 16 January 2014, Sue Taylor looked up from her car as she departed the rural city of Horsham. In the direction of the Grampians – a rugged sandstone range 300km west of Melbourne, Victoria – above a low-hanging shroud of smoke, a colossal cloud mushroomed into the atmosphere.
“It looked like an atomic bomb went off,” Sue says.
The evening before, dry lightning sparked the first flames in a remote rocky region along Pohlners Road, in the Grampians. This was just one of a handful of separate fires reported. But, as night fell, nothing could be done. In terrain like this, only aircraft can reach the fire, and they can’t operate in darkness. By the next day – the same day Sue Taylor looked up from her car window – the fires coalesced into one super-fire that ultimately burnt more than 51,800 hectares in and around Grampians National Park.
Back in Melbourne, the hearts of countless climbers broke. For climbers, the Northern Grampians is the crown of the heritage-listed sandstone ranges, with Taipan Wall – a sliver of perfect sandstone cleaved from the flank of Mount Stayplton, worshipped by climbers from all over the world – its jewel.
As aircraft bombed the fire with water and retardant, it started to sound like World War II. Five fixed-wing aircraft and seven helicopters were employed. Still, the fire spread with speed.
By Thursday evening, the cloud was so enormous that it began creating its own storms. More lightning struck the Smiths Road area, on the western side of the range, beneath Mount Difficult.
At 6.30pm that night, a community meeting was called, and hundreds of people from around Wartook Valley, on the western side of the Grampians, congregated at Laharum Hall to be told the bad news that they were going to be attacked by fire. It was announced: “Either you need to leave within the next few hours, or it will be too late to leave.”
“Coming out of the hall and looking across at Smiths Road valley, it was absolutely inferno,” Sue says. “We knew that our friend Prue was trapped in there with a fire truck, and helicopters were bombing all around. It was terrifying.”
The fire was getting closer to Sue’s home in Wartook. It spread from Pohlners Road, under Mount Difficult, and was cutting across the range towards her property, a 100-hectare block overlooking the McKenzie River, from where she and her husband had watched the Grampians peaks glow red and violet with the setting sun for many years. Sue Taylor, 70, is married to Rob Taylor, 73, who co-edited the 1968 Rockclimbing Guide to the Grampians with Jerry Grandage. They have lived in Wartook since about 1982.
After dark, the fires looked a lot worse. In the night, the shock of trees flaring up as the fire hit them intensified. When the full front of the fire came into view, Sue and Rob could see that it was the worst fire they’d ever seen.
Doing their best to prepare their home, the pair started running around, pulling furniture away from walls, hosing down, taking down flammable curtains and putting up blankets, putting big containers of water everywhere, bringing in plastic garden chairs, dampening towels and putting them under doors.
By then, their two sons Ross and Lachie – who had been climbing in Tasmania – bought plane tickets and flew back to the mainland, wanting to help. The boys planned to reach Wartook at 2.30am on Friday morning.
“But at about 11 o’clock at night, we realised that we didn’t want them coming in,” Sue says. “The fire was spreading at incredible speed.”
“Our daughter Alison had also rang up, upset,” Sue explains. “She said, we could get a new house, but she couldn’t get new parents.”
Just after midnight, Sue and Rob drove away from their house and their cabins, believing that they wouldn’t see them again.
Scooting along Northern Grampians Road, the pair only struck fire when they hit Brimpaen Road – about nine kilometres from their driveway – and luckily it had passed through about half an hour before them. All the leaves had gone from the trees, so the greatest danger had passed. “All the tree trunks were on fire,” Sue describes. “Like very savage, beautiful fireworks.”
They drove through two lines of fire before reaching the police blockade, where a policeman told them, “Once you go out, you can’t go back in.” They understood.
“We weren’t allowed back in for about three days,” Sue explains. “The worst part was not knowing how our friends and neighbours were faring, and whether our house and cabins – which are our livelihood now – survived.”
At about 11.30am on Friday, the fire passed through Sue and Rob’s property. Luckily, a private fire-fighting unit warned them that their cabins were under ember attack from a massive tree that had fallen down, showering embers all over. Sue rang 000, and a fire truck was sent in very quickly. In the end, the house and cabin were saved by helicopters bombing water and fire retardant, because the fire trucks – which had come from Beaufort and other surrounds – didn’t have local guides, and continually got lost in the Grampians’ maze of roads.
Other locals weren’t as lucky. Along Roses Gap Road, which climbers use to access Mount Difficult and Troopers Creek Campground, large trees on either side made it difficult for fire fighters to descend into the area. “Lots of places were lost,” Sue says, her voice dropping to a barely audible whisper. “People lost their homes. The Wander Inn restaurant lost their house, but saved their business. The firemen apologised because they couldn’t save both, only one. The owner, Jenny Wilson, said, ‘Well, you made the right decision’. There were lots of hard decisions.”
What does the Grampians fire mean for climbers?
After fire, roads are dangerous to travel on. Trees can suddenly fall over, after burning at the base or roots. Experts fell these trees – which can be very numerous – before the public are allowed on these roads.
Asphalt can also be damaged by fire’s heat. And, when trees fall on hot asphalt, they can damage the road’s surface.
Fixing roads can be a massive job. Parks Victoria is starved of funds and resources, so roads and tracks are fixed in order of priority. This means that many side tracks – like climbers’ tracks – aren’t fixed for a long time.
Anyone wandering through burnt forest risks falling into ash holes. These are areas of loose soil. They’re a problem when your foot falls into one, and the tree roots you hit are still smouldering underground. “A friend of mine got a second-degree burn on one leg,” Sue says.
Parks can also remain closed because landscapes are fragile after fire. Loose soil means erosion is a problem until vegetation starts growing again, to hold the soil together. Walking on loose, ashy trails can damage them.
Many climbers maintain that in a fire, bolts don’t get hot enough to get damaged. Mike Law, who is conducting ongoing research on bolts, hasn’t tested any fire-affected bolts. “The only safe thing to say is beware of bolts in shattered, split, fire-damaged rock,” Mike says.
Rock can be affected by fire, although certain types of rock get more damaged than others. In many climbers’ experiences, rock with moisture underneath it is prone to breaking off, or even exploding off during the fire. Many small, feeble flakes might pop off. “You get the most damage in rocks that are poor conductors,” Mike explains. “These are the ‘stronger’ rocks, like granite and good limestone.”
“When my friend Angela looked at Taipan Wall, she saw small patches of burn, but most of the wall was fine,” Sue says. Sue’s son, Ross Taylor, who is an editor at Vertical Life, says, “I doubt anything will have happened to Taipan other than burnt vegetation. Boulders tend to be more affected by fire than cliffs, in my experience, but it depends on how hot the fire gets.”
“The Australian forest is designed for fire,” Sue says. Seeds have opened and fallen on the ground within two or three days of the fire. Certain orchids are also easier to see after fire. The Red Beak Orchid, for instance, rarely flowers without bushfire. “Within a few weeks all the grass trees bloom, and that is an incredible sight,” Sue says. “Tall white flower spikes against the blackened, singed landscape.”
In addition to suffering fire damage, the Grampians’ cafés, cabins and touring companies are losing bookings during what should be their busiest season, summer. Many Grampians businesses have re-opened since the fire, so consider visiting them to support them. Remember, a fire-damaged landscape is a sight to behold, even from a distance. The mountainsides are streaked like a tiger’s hide – stripes of burnt areas against green where the fire didn’t reach. “I think climbers will love seeing it after fire,” Sue says. Although all the climbing areas in the Northern Grampians are closed, climbing is open in the south.
Chelsea Brunckhorst is a Melburnian writer. Like many climbers from the ‘Big Smoke’, she regards the beloved Grampians as part of her extended backyard. Follow her on Twitter @chelswrites and Instagram @chelswrites.