Next week marks the 50th anniversary of Black Monday when around 30 bushfires ravaged the Illawarra from Coledale to Dapto and experts say it could happen again.
The October 28 fires of 1968 destroyed 31 homes, damaged hundreds more and forced thousands of people to flee as the flames rushed down the escarpment, devouring anything in their path.
This year’s winter was incredibly dry and although it has rained in recent weeks the escarpment will be dry again by summer, according to Senior Research Fellow Owen Price from the Centre for Environmental Risk Management of Bushfire.
“Every few years we get the right conditions that could start [a bushfire],” Dr Price said
“For Sydney airport and many other weather stations, 1965 to 1968 was one of the most serious droughts recorded … by 1968 it was pretty much confined to the east coast.
“In August [this year] the prognosis was looking really bad with a drought and bad fire weather that caused fires further south.”
“We have had about 60 millimetres of rain in the Illawarra, that might seem like a lot but it is still less than the normal monthly average (of about 100mm).”
Dr Price said the recent damp has put the area out of “immediate danger” but the ground on the escarpment was not wet and muddy.
“It will be dry again in a few weeks, and then if we get no serious follow up rain, summer will still be looking bad,” he said.
Hot and dry conditions coupled with severe winds – like those seen on Black Monday – were the type to cause havoc over the summer, Dr Price said.
Helen Kuiper was an 18-year-old University of Wollongong student at the time of Black Monday and recalled watching the fire spread over the top of Mount Keira in minutes.
“The whole mountain was alight, it was all burning, so surreal,” she told the Mercury.
Ms Kuiper’s parents lived up the back of Thirroul at the time, her father adamant there’d never be a bushfire because of the rainforest along the escarpment.
The fire burned within a metre of their home, she said, but wiped out others in the suburb.
Bruce McCauley’s mother also had a close encounter in Thirroul, her home at the top of Lachlan Street spared thanks to some help.
“The fire went right around the house, would have lost it only a chap from Bellambi had a few cow's there and he saved the house [but] lost three sheds,” Mr McCauley said.
Phil Chilby used social media to share his experiences as a 17-year-old firefighter wearing water back-packs and trying to save houses on Bulli Pass.
“We were called down the pass when the fire was roaring across the four lanes in one huge sheet of flame,” he said. “One of the most intense things I have ever seen.”
FROM THE BUREAU
The Bureau of Meteorology has released its three-month outlook and predicts large parts of eastern Australia will likely be be drier than average – including the Illawarra.
November shows a strong likelihood of drier conditions across most of the eastern two-thirds of the country, according to the outlook.
November to January days and nights could be warmer than average for the Illawarra, while areas currently affected by drought are less likely to see significant respite in the coming three months.
“A drier and warmer than average end to the year would mean a low chance of recovery for drought-affected areas of eastern Australia,” the outlook stated.
Meantime, to see more images from the disaster the 50 Years Since The 1968 Bushfires exhibition is on at the Black Diamond Heritage Centre Bulli, 12pm to 4pm every Sunday until the 25th November.