How to Help with Australia’s Bushfire Recovery

As fire-affected communities begin to rebuild, here’s how Sydneysiders and visitors to Sydney can help out by visiting these areas and getting the tourism economy going again.

Australia is no stranger to bushfires, however last summer’s fire season was catastrophically bad. It has been described as the worst ever fire season by the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.  Bushfire season usually begins in October, however, in 2019, it started in some areas in August. By the start of October, a serious fire in the state’s rural north had claimed the season’s first two lives.

Follow the hashtags

There are a bunch of really positive campaigns that have been put in place to help make supporting these regions easier. These are designed to dispel some of the alarmism around the bushfires and remind potential visitors of the continuing features of these areas.

Bushfire recovery campaign NSW
Credit: Destination NSW

Tips for exploring and supporting bushfire affected regions of NSW

How you can help communities in rural Australia

The economic costs of this long-running disaster are yet to be tallied but will no doubt soar into the many billions of dollars, with losses of homes, businesses and livestock. Many of these smaller towns, particularly those on coast rely upon the tourism industry to keep them running, and many have reported a notable drop in tourist numbers at a time that is usually their best season.

In early January, New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern holidayed with a local family in bushfire affected areas in northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, in an effort that locals hoped will bring tourists back into the region.

With a range of resources from maps and itineraries to special deals designed to encourage visitors. If you head off exploring be sure to use the #hashtags to help share your finds and the campaign with others.

#Holidayherethisyear is a campaign by Tourism Australia to get Aussies to spend some money visiting towns and areas that have taken a hit and try to get some money back into these local economies.

#LoveNSW and #RecoveryWeekend are the hashtags chosen by NSW Tourism for their Now is the time to Love NSW campaign perfect for those of us looking for short breaks from Sydney. You can find the Love NSW holiday ideas here

Other campaigns worth following include:

So with no further ado below are a few fire-affected areas close to Sydney that need and deserve a visit.

Areas that need your love

Southern Highlands

Particularly fierce fires raged through this part of the state in December and January that at times threatened parts of Sydney itself, but by the time of writing these fires have fallen back in danger and intensity, and the Southern Highlands remain for the most part as beautiful as they’ve always been.

#Sharethelove in the NSW Southern Highlands

YouTube video

An easy day trip from Sydney and plenty of attractions to fill a weekend why not check out one of the Visitor Trails that Southern Highlands Tourism has put together. There really is something for everyone here

Another favourite spot is the Bradman Museum & International Cricket Hall of Fame in Bowral. If you take one of the trails above, try to slot this in.

Bradman Museum Southern Highlands NSW
Photo: Courtesy Destination Southern Highlands

The Shoalhaven and South Coast

Things were no better further down the coast, an area usually very popular with tourists but also suffering from the recent fire-related downturn.

For the coastal towns of Jervis Bay and the Shoalhaven, December and January peak provide the income to sustain the town’s economy for the winter months. With almost no visitors and the roads closed for a couple of weeks, these towns are really struggling. These are also some of the most beautiful places in the country, so schedule a visit as soon as you can. You will not be disappointed!

If you have never visited Jervis Bay we think you should head there soon!

Pristine white sands of Greenfield Beach, Vincentia in the state's South Coast.
Greenfield Beach, Vincentia Jervis Bay- Credit: Destination NSW

Visitors to this neck of the woods should not miss a tour of one of the wineries in the growing wine region around Shoalhaven, many of which provide not just a nice walk and a nice drop, but bed and breakfast style accommodation.

Further south Batemans Bay, Bega and towns right down to and across the Victorian border suffered some of the worst impacts. The small rural village of Cobargo saw incredible devastation.

One good news story emerged from Mogo Wildlife Park, which made headlines back in late December as zookeepers heroically defended the animals from the oncoming fires. The park and the animals were spared and Mogo is now open again, showing a wide variety of rare exotic animals, including Australia’s largest collection of primates. Be sure to pop in and show them some love. Mogo is owned by the Featherdale team and there is a combined annual ticket.

The Illawarra & Kiama

Only an hour or so south of Sydney the fires did not really impact the Illawarra coast; however, the smoke did and, visitor numbers here also plummeted.

Why not jump in the car soon and take the Grand Pacific Drive down south for a couple of days. The views are sensational and there are lots of little towns to explore as you go.

Along the way, the Illawarra Fly Treetop is well worth a stop. A 1500 metre walk through the canopy of one of Australia’s rare temperate rainforests. And for those of us who are more adventurous, there are a series of zip lines that will send you flying through the air thirty metres above the forest floor.

Visitors walking amongst the trees at Illawarra Fly Treetop Adventures, Knights Hill south of Wollongong.
Illawarra Fly – Credit: Destination NSW

Kiama is another lovely coastal town undamaged by the fires with great food, beautiful beaches and plenty of great walks, like the Kiama Coastal Walk. You can reach Kiama by train if you don’t have a car!

Cathedral Rocks Kiama NSW South Coast
Cathedral Rocks near Kiama

The Blue Mountains and Hawkesbury

The Blue Mountains were heavily impacted by fires at Grose Valley and Gospers Mountain, with the Gospers Mountain fire being the biggest recorded in Australian history. None of this changes the fact that the Blue Mountains are one of the most popular destinations in Australia, a rugged wilderness just a 90-minute drive from the city of Sydney.

Typical attractions such as the momentous Three Sisters rock formation and the Scenic Railway, the steepest in the world, near Katoomba were untouched by fire. They closed for a few days due to risk and visibility issues but are back to normal and waiting for you to come to visit.

Outlying towns such as Blackheath and Bilpin were in a far more precarious position and are no less valuable to the discerning tourist.

Blackheath is great for history buffs and outdoorsy types alike. A historic town named by the first Europeans to cross the Great Dividing Range, Blackheath has several buildings dating back to the 19th century and thriving antique markets for those wanting to pick up a souvenir. For the more active, several heritage-listed walking tracks show off beautiful mountain vistas.

Check out our weekend in Blackheath for ideas of how you can spend a few days here.

The valley at Blackheath sustained quite a lot of damage but is open for walks, and the regrowth is evident.

Bilpin, a little further west, is a town famous for its apples. Despite being in real danger and suffering enormous damage during the fire season, much of Bilpin’s produce has survived intact, and the little town still offers a lot to foodies.

Visit the Bilpin Fruit Bowl, and for a small fee, you can go picking at your leisure before returning to purchase some local produce in the forms of apple pies, cider, local honey, homemade jam and whatever fruit is in season.

Follow one of our Blue Mountains self-drive day trips or string them together for a longer break.

Mid North Coast

A long-running fire in Port Macquarie was particularly damaging during the early part of the season. Causing damage from the outskirts of the town right down to Lake Cathie, scorching a vast swath of bushland and polluting the sky with some of the densest smoke seen in Australia.

Of concern was the deaths of hundreds of koalas and the destruction of up to 75% of their habitat. If you can’t visit you can still adopt a Koala or make a donation to the Koala Hospital here.

Koala ambulance at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie.
Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie. Credit: Destination NSW

From the colonial era Tacking Point Lighthouse to the beautiful Sea Acres Rainforest Centre there is plenty to see in Port. The town offers a stylish food and entertainment district and lovely of beaches lined with the area’s famous Norfolk Pines.

NSW beach at Port Macquarie

Like Port Macquarie, the Great Lakes area, including Foster and Tuncurry, was hit by fires earlier in the season. Dramatic scenes in the town of Forster featured on the news, but the worst was reserved for the area between Forster and the regional centre of Taree, where a fire starting at Hillsville burnt down to the sea.

But like the other places on this list, the Great Lakes is still a fantastic holiday destination, with a lot of its key attractions untouched by the disaster. Stunning beaches and large shallow lakes offer families plenty of opportunity for aquatic activities. Whales begin migrating north around June and boats like the Amaroo allow visitors to say hello from a safe and respectful distance.

1 Mile Beach in NSW

On the last count, I might be a little biased. Forster and the Great Lakes area has always been very close to me, and it’s a place where I spent a lot of time growing up. I was in the town when a fire sprang up back in late November. Seeing the flames up on the hill just a few hundred metres from my parent’s place was a chilling sight, as was the panic that set into the town as the fire tore a line towards the packed shopping centre.

Forster NSW

Thanks to the quick and brave actions of fire crews disaster was averted, the fires were confined to bush areas and then slowly put out. Due to their efforts, I and the people around me were lucky enough to only have a small taste of this national disaster.

homes in Forster threatened by fire
The view from our street with the fires burning behind

A lot of these towns have been hit very hard, and they need whatever support we can give. The next little holiday you take can do more than just provide you with warm memories and incredible experiences; it can help revitalise some devastated country. #Holidayherethisyear

So what exactly happened?

A warm winter and very dry conditions reduced the opportunity to prepare for the upcoming season. Across the coming months, fires would rage across the state’s Mid North Coast as well as the Hawkesbury and the Blue Mountains, burning vast swathes of bushland and taking multiple lives.

Serious fires also flared up in parts of Queensland, particularly in that state’s populous and drought-stricken south-east corner. Towards the end of 2019 and start of 2020, fires began to worsen on New South Wales’ South Coast and Southern Highlands.

Fire burning in the Australian bush

These expanded to include parts of Gippsland in Eastern Victoria, while Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia was particularly affected. Horrific conditions saw the Victorian government declare a state of emergency. The armed forces were deployed to help in the firefighting effort, and several coastal towns had to be evacuated by the navy.

At the time of writing, bushfires have taken the lives of 34 people and burnt out 46 million acres of land. It’s also estimated that more than 800 million native animals have been killed, including many considered threatened or endangered.

New life just a fortnight after the fire

Recent heavy rains have meant that all the fires along the east coast have been put out, and the risk to lives and property continues to fall as summer fades.  

How these bushfires affected Sydney

Although Sydney was given its first-ever catastrophic bushfire warning this season, the recent bushfires had few direct effects on the city. Outbreaks in bushland in and around Sydney’s Northern Suburbs were brought under control with minimal property damage, but fires towards the city’s south-west were much more severe.

Dangerous and ultimately fatal fires in the Southern Highlands also approached the outskirts of Sydney’s suburbs in December, but these were brought under control after relatively minor losses.

Bushfire smoke in Sydney
On Sydney Harbour in December 2019

The most noticeable effect of the bushfires upon Sydney was indirect. The fires that surrounded the city brought vast amounts of smoke covering the skyline in a thick dark blanket.

For a time, we had the worst air quality in the world, reaching over eleven times the dangerous limit. This air quality crisis led to disrupted flights and cancelled events, outside activities were difficult and uncomfortable. While doctors warned of health concerns, especially for older people and those with underlying conditions. Despite all this, the smoke eventually cleared and at no point was the city as a whole seriously threatened by the fires that raged around it.

Other than the practical travel tips this article is the work of Nathan Morgan-Hammer

About the Author
Nathan Morgan-Hammer is a 26-year-old writer currently living in Newcastle, just north of Sydney. Between reading history, socialising with friends and exploring the great outdoors, he likes to write articles that help people better understand the world they live in.

Feature image credit: Destination NSW

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