Wambelong Fire

On 13th January 2013, a mega-fire tore through the Warrumbungles National Park, placing in immediate danger all of the telescopes at the Siding Spring Observatory. 

NSW fire services conducted an official evacuation of the entire region that afternoon, as the fires moved directly toward the observatory site with its twelve telescopes. Automated detectors in the observatory showed the temperature reached above 100 degrees Celsius at the hottest point during the fire.

The Wambelong Fire burning. Image: Tom Shanks

The Wameblong fire burning. Image: Tom Shanks

As communication was lost with networks across the mountain, astronomers feared the worst in what was an eerie echo of the Mt Stromlo fires exactly ten years previously. The iTelescope facility and MOPRA radio telescope were both feared to be seriously damaged as contact was severed, and some buildings for the observatory staff were seen to be ablaze.

Astronomers and staff of the observatory had an anxious overnight wait as emergency service crews commandeered the on-site web-cams to help track the progress of the fire. It was late at night before news arrived that the wind direction had changed, leading the fire away from the observatory.

The fire bearing down upon the Observatory. Image: NSW Rural Fire Service

The fire bearing down upon the 4m AAT Dome. Image: NSW Rural Fire Service

Damage on the mountain included the complete loss of the Lodge where visiting astronomers stayed and the Director’s cottage.  The Visitor’s Centre also sustained damage, but was recovered.

The observatory was shutdown for two weeks while special teams assessed the extent of the damage and began the long clean up process. The limited damage to the actual telescopes was credited to the hard work of the firefighters, and precautionary measures taken on site, such as back-burning and the use of ember-repelling mesh.

Weeks after the fire swept through Siding Spring, it continued to burn on the outskirts of Coonabarabran, with fire crews working around the clock to halt the blaze. Rainfall in the area eventually helped to bring the fire under control 41 days after it started.

While no lives were lost in the fire, it scorched 56,000 hectares of land and 95% of the Warrumbungles National Park. 56 homes were destroyed and 28 firefighters were injured in their attempts to control the conflagration.

A year on, the landscape began to recover from the ordeal, with green re-growth emerging.

As a result of the loss of the Astronomer’s Lodge, the AAO has successfully pushed forward its plan to allow AAT observations to be carried out from the offices in North Ryde near Sydney or from other institutions around Australia.  Many astronomers now choose to perform their observations remotely.

The NSW coroner has now released his findings on the cause and origins of the Wambelong fire, which can be read here

The burnt landscape surrounding the Siding Spring Observatory. Image: Steve Lee

The destruction the Wambelong fire caused to the Warrumbungles National Park. Image: Steve Lee.

 You can read more about the Wambelong fire in an AAO Observer report (Feb 2013, Number 123) by Andy Green and Amanda Bauer: