Bushfire Archive Project

The bushfire archive project set out to record the Bundanoon community’s experience of Black Summer 2019/2020 and contribute to the national understanding of the disastrous events.

What happened in Bundanoon was a microcosm of what occurred in many communities across Australia during the catastrophic bushfire season in 2019-20.  The Black Summer fires started in winter 2019 and became the worst on record for New South Wales in terms of its intensity, the area burned, the devastation of wildlife, and the number of properties lost.

The Climate Council published an overview of the Black Summer crisis.

The purpose of the project was to inform people – both in the community and at state and national levels – about the Morton Fire; to guide them to further information; and, most importantly, to build preparedness. Bushfires will threaten Bundanoon again.

As eminent historian Tom Griffiths has observed:

It is essential for our survival and our culture that Australians learn a fine-grained language of fire in all its different localities. (The Canberra Times, 11 January 2020)  

The Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements noted ‘to enable locally-led recovery, it is essential that the impacts on communities are understood. However, it has been difficult to develop a clear national picture of the impact of the 2019-2020 bushfires across the nation’ (p.427).

How the Morton Fire started

23,004 hectares of the Morton National Park were burned, photo Meg Nurse, March 2020

The Morton Fire formed on 4 January, 2020 after embers from the Currowan fire jumped the Shoalhaven River. Southerly winds of up to 90kph pushed the flames across the Kangaroo Valley and towards the Southern Highlands communities of Bundanoon, Wingello and Exeter. On 4/5 January 2020, 4 homes in Bundanoon, 2 in Exeter and 8 in Wingello were destroyed. Another on Teudts Road was lost later in the month. The fire was declared extinguished on 10 February 2020

Five key messages from the bushfires project

Message 1  – Prepare, prepare, prepare

The RFS has a bushfire survival plan that explains what to do if a bushfire threatens your home. They recommend simple things to do around the home to prepare, like:  keeping the grass low; clearing gutters; and having a cleared area around the outside of the house;  knowing and keeping on top of the bushfire alert levels; and in a bush fire, staying up to date on conditions in your area. You can do this by having information numbers and website details on your phone, and installing the bushfire smartphone app, as well as by monitoring local radio.  

More information can be found at:  Bush fire survival plan – NSW Rural Fire Service

Message 2 – Effective, timely communication is key

Not everyone uses social media. Those in Bundanoon who did, appreciated the Bundanoon community Facebook page and the Fires Near Me app. Others warned that the information was not always up-to-date or accurate. Local ABC and FM radio news was also valuable.

Message 3 – We need to understand cultural burning and fire ecology

I think we need to get people in fire ecology or firefighting – and I’m not pointing at the RFS or National Parks – before we go into the next fire season and get some information out to people; training sessions. Just having witnessed the trauma of my neighbours – and a lot of it could have been avoided if they had

Pat Hall, Bundanoon resident and former NSW National Parks employee

Message  4 – Unprecedented events are here to stay

“If you sit down with someone who says, ‘I’ve seen it all before’, well, no you haven’t! There’s always something to surprise you”. 

 Peter Gray, Bundanoon resident, BCA President in January 2020, Garland Road Community Fire Unit team leader

Message  5 – The community spirit got us through, but ….

there is still more to do to educate people about fire, about being prepared and not everyone is resilient.  Some have decided to leave town for fear of fire.

History of fire in Bundanoon

                   1939 fire in Bundanoon

The Bundanoon History Group holds files about previous bushfires in the village, including:

1904 – Bundanoon’s Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Bundanoon, was destroyed by bushfire on New Year’s Eve 1904.

1939 – January 1939, Bundanoon escaped the fate of Penrose, which lost 9 houses, 2 stores, a fruit-packing shed, a church and 8 farmhouses. That fire started when an unattended camp fire got out of control.  Ian Smith’s article on the 1939 fires can be found at: Bundanoon History Group Monthly Newsletter November 2020

1965 – On 13 March 1965, 31 houses were burned down in Wingello. (Wingello is said to be an Aboriginal word meaning ‘place of fire’ or ‘to burn’.) Bundanoon fared better thanks to 1000 firefighters, volunteers, troops and police who fought back the fire. They were helped by wind changes.

1978-79 – Serious fires occurred in the Southern Highlands in 1978-79.

1983 – A fire started on Shangri-la Road, south of the village of Bundanoon.  A car was burnt at Tooths Lookout in the Morton National Park.

1998 – During the Gulph Creek fire – Wingello State Forest – a firefighter was killed and several injured.


Several people from the southern villages made submissions to the NSW inquiry into the 2019-20 bushfire season