History Saved! Jenolan Caves Defended as Australian Fires Rage On
Australia’s World Heritage Listed heritage site, the Jenolan Caves Reserve, which has the world’s oldest known and open cave systems, has been protected from the raging fires which are tearing across the country. Dozens of volunteer fire fighters worked around the clock to protect property of historical significance as the fires surrounded them on three sides. Jenolan Caves House and facilities were saved, although four structures, including the local fire service station, were lost.
Located 110 miles west of Sydney in the Blue Mountains, the Jenolan Caves are regarded as Australia’s most outstanding cave system, with crystal clear underground rivers and amazing limestone crystal formations. The stalactite and stalagmite formations are among the finest in the world.
Limestone formations in the Imperial Cave at Jenolan Caves, NSW, Australia (CC by SA 3.0 / Toby Hudson)
According to the official Jenolan Caves website, the caves have been known to the local Aboriginal people for thousands of years. They called them Binoomea, “Dark places”. The Gundungurra Aboriginal people used to carry sick people into the caves to be bathed in the underground waters, which they believed to have curative powers.
The caves were first formed 340 million years ago and consist of more than 40 kilometres (25 miles) of multi-level passages with over 300 entrances. The complex is still being explored. Eleven illuminated show caves are open to visitors.
The Steep and Winding Ladders of the Chifley Cave at Jenolan Caves. Credit: Paul / Adobe Stock
The Central Western Daily reported that Jenolan Caves Reserve was threatened by a massive blaze formed by the merging of the Ruined Castle bushfire (17,058 hectares) and the Wattle Creek fire (262,729 hectares), which has been burning for weeks.
The fire had surrounded the Jenolan Caves on three sides and was tearing towards the 124-year-old Jenolan Caves House. The historic building was constructed in 1896 as a wilderness retreat for the wealthy. The NSW State Heritage listed building is a 4-storey hotel complex designed in an ‘English Domestic Revival’ style. It is regarded as an icon of the Blue Mountains and one of the finest guest houses still functioning as accommodation in Australia.
Raging fires tear towards Jenolan Caves Reserve. Credit: Jenolan Caves RFS Facebook page
Reporting on the operations that saved historic structures around Jenolan Caves, the Fire and Rescue NSW Station 256 Cobar wrote on their Facebook page:
“The terrain there is very challenging and dangerous with lots of dense bushland and rocky walls: but with the combined forces of a great team we were able to save a lot of structures.
We put a lot of protective measures in place as the fire was literally surrounding the house and we employed a range of techniques combined with a number of services working together to keep it as safe as possible.
As of yesterday, we were successful in saving the house and many of the surrounding buildings. Sadly we were unable to save a number of structures (including an RFS shed). However, we can report ZERO loss of life and all firefighters remained safe. We were also able to take many of the beautiful animals that were displaced and provide food and water for them. Brown snakes, tiger snakes & black snakes were amongst the creatures seeking refuge and came in many - however we were a little less cuddly with these ones!”
Fire engines line up inside the entrance to Jenolan Caves. Credit: Jenolan Caves RFS Facebook page
The below video shows Jenolan Caves RFS Crew evacuating along Jenolan Caves Road on New Year’s Eve. They write: “We were surrounded by intense flames on both sides as we were defending some of the cottages and had no choice but to evacuate to safety.”
According to Jenolan Caves, the structures that were destroyed in the fire include a vacant staff cottage, the cavers' cottage and cottage 11, described as a building of local heritage significance.
All activities at Jenolan Caves, including tours and accommodation, remain suspended until the area is deemed safe.
The 2019–20 Australian bushfires have burned an estimated 6.3 million hectares (16 million acres), destroyed over 2,500 buildings (including over 1,300 houses) and killed 25 people as of 5 January 2020, with a further six missing in the state of Victoria. The bushfires are regarded by some as one of the worst bushfire seasons in memory. It has been estimated that close to half a billion animals have been killed in the ongoing fires so far.
Top image: Jenolan region on fire. Credit: Jenolan Caves RFS Facebook page