Victoria, Australia — The scale of the job facing those in charge of reopening the Grampians National Park is evident during the undulating, 15-kilometre journey from Halls Gap to the park’s main tourist attraction, MacKenzie Falls.
“It’s normally a very picturesque drive up here,” said Stewart Davidson, who maintains the park’s facilities. “Nice and green.”
It’s now eerie and black. Destinations on some road signs have peeled off, while the white posts lining the road have fallen victim to the ferocious flames and extreme radiant heat of bushfires that burnt about 130,000 hectares, or about 47 per cent of the park.
One tree, an orange cross spray-painted on its base to signify danger, threatens to topple on to a road already littered with ash and broken branches.
“That one will have to go,” Mr Davidson said. Some trees are still smouldering despite the fire now deemed to be contained. “It’s a shock to see it in your home national park to this scale,” he said.
“Bushfire tourism” might be the new catch-phrase as operators pray that visitors will come back in droves to the region. Halls Gap Tourism and Business Association co-president Julian Carr said there was a certain beauty, albeit macabre, looking at areas where the bushfires raced through.
Tourism Minister John Pandazopoulos believes the devastation gives everyone “a unique opportunity” to see the lopsided contest between fire and nature. But he did not need to repeat the mantra of how important the tourist dollar was to the Grampians in a somewhat heated meeting of Halls Gap business leaders last week.
A few bluntly reminded him as the talk shifted to how some businesses had already gone broke while others were cutting back on staff in preparation for tough times ahead.
“It’s going to be a massive job to clean this up,” Mr Davidson said. The expansive view from Reed Lookout shows the varying degrees of the fire.
“It’s the best view in the place. This was all lush green,” Mr Davidson said. “A beautiful view.” Now it’s a grim mix of burnt canopies and charred stumps that, from a distance, look like used matches poking from the ground. Roads normally hidden by trees stand out, and the green pockets of trees that survived are in the minority.
Also noticeable is the lack of bird life. Birds Australia said the bushfires caused massive devastation to the state’s native bird populations. The organisation said “tens of thousands of birds died painfully” in the fire or in its aftermath from starvation and dehydration.
Much has been made of the loss of more than 65,000 head of livestock but Wildlife Victoria had a “conservative” estimate that more than 250,000 animals would have perished in the Grampians alone. “The intensity of the fire was so harsh and so quick,” said volunteer Walter Collins, saying the fallout was “like a nuclear bomb” for the animal population.
Parks Victoria said there were a few important threatened species that might have been affected by the fire and they would be assessed in the next few weeks. Grampians ranger-in-charge Graham Parkes said these included the heath mouse, smoky mouse and long-nosed potoroo.
The random cruelty of the bushfire is evident at the top of MacKenzie Falls, which attracts 250,000 visitors annually. The operator of the kiosk, John Parker, battled the bushfire alone as his family sought refuge in Horsham. He was unable to save the family’s home leased from Parks Victoria and described the attack as “like a snowstorm of embers”. The kiosk next door, however, was unscathed.
The kilometre-long path down to MacKenzie Falls looks normal in parts and strewn with debris in others. While the water cascades from Broken Falls with the same thundering frequency, one lookout is badly damaged and another is slightly damaged but is unsafe nonetheless.
An estimated 175 kilometres of walking tracks are gone. “We have to start from scratch,” Mr Davidson said. Parks Victoria said “quite a substantial amount” of camping grounds were destroyed.
Incident controller Ian Christie admitted the “recovery and rehabilitation phase would be enormous, matching the fire”.
Mr Christie wanted to let the public visit the park “so that they can appreciate the fire” but that was all dependent on safety. “The damage has got to be assessed first,” he said. “We’re not even into some of these areas ourselves.”
A risk assessment will be performed on many trees lining the roads around the Grampians.
Some roads, walks and camping areas have been reopened, although visitors have been advised to be cautious. Parks Victoria has listed some of the areas open to the public on its website www.parkweb.vic.gov.au.