All about fires (and climbing)

Evidence of the catastrophic Black Summer fires of 2019 is still visible at many climbing areas across New South Wales. It has been a wet few years and most of us haven’t had to think about how to manage staying safe when conditions turn dry, hot and windy. Be informed and prepared with these handy tips!


Most Australian climbing areas have a long history of regular bushfires. Places like the Blue Mountains can expect a major bushfire at least once a decade. Check out this incredible footage from 2019 as an example of bushfires interacting with climbing areas (Pulpit Rock, Blue Mtns). Bushfires can be started by natural causes, such as lightning strikes, or by people (accidentally or on purpose). 

The main fire season is the summer months – where hot and windy weather can mean it is wise to do your research before heading out climbing. Here are some tips on surviving the fire season as a climber.

  • Check weather conditions, Bushfire Alerts and the status of Total Fire Bans BEFORE leaving home. There are apps for that – see later on in this article. Driving into a bushfire through ignorance is a silly way to die.
  • When bushfire alert levels are high, avoid remote areas with limited options of escape and lack of mobile range. It’s better to climb nearer towns and cities and at areas with short approaches. Being in an area of mobile coverage is also important to keep on top of the latest bushfire alerts.
  • Discuss an escape plan B. Do you know of alternative ways of walking or driving out of where you plan to climb if the regular way is blocked by fire?
  • Tell someone where you are going beforehand. A quick message sent to a friend or family member can save much angst from loved ones who may call in an unnecessary search and rescue to the wrong place. A Personal Locator Beacon (PLB) is well worth the money – and can even be borrowed from Katoomba Police Station for free!
  • During a Total Fire Ban you must not light any fires, including gas camp stoves. Lighting a fire on a day of Total Fire Ban attracts an on the spot fine of $2200. If the matter goes to court, you could be subject to a fine of up to $5500 and/or 12 months gaol. Even when it’s not a Total Fire Ban you should avoid cigarettes and campfires at climbing & camping areas on hot days. Both are actually illegal in NSW National Parks all year round (unless an official firepit is in place). See section below for further info about campfires.
  • If you see fire or smoke or smell smoke then leave the area immediately (if safe to do so). Be sure to ask other climbers at the crag about your concerns on the way out. If you believe no one else knows about this fire – report it by dialing 000. Be sure to know your location before reporting.
  • Remember that bush and grass fires can move quickly and catch you off guard. If you are caught in a fire, protect yourself from the heat. For more information about surviving read this article on Bushwalking Manual – Last resort – surviving a bushfire. The safest option is to leave early before the fire reaches you.

Online Resources

There are plenty of online resources that can help keep you out of trouble.

Emergency Plus

Everyone should have this app on their phone. It creates instant location info that can be read out to 000 phone operators in the event you are reporting a dangerous fire, or are in physical danger yourself. If you have ever tried to describe a location of a climbing area to a phone operator you will greatly understand the benefits of this app! “errr, I’m at Sharon Stone at Celebrity Crags, next to the big tree and the fern”…

Hazards Near Me app

Formally called Fires Near Me, this is a NSW Government app that shows near-real time data on the location of fires and flood hazards and the Bushfire Alert Levels. You can set up a region and it will send you alarms if fires become active in your area. You will need mobile internet to use this app – so in remote areas it will not work (another good reason to climb nearer civilization in hot periods)

The NSW Rural Fire Service categories bushfire warnings into three categories on the Hazards Near Me app  –  Advice, Watch & Act and Emergency Warning. Have a read of what each means – and what you need to do if you end up in an area with one of these alerts. For example, in an Emergency Warning you need to take immediate action to protect your life.

This app can be several hours out of date during major events – always crosscheck with multiple sources. The app also provides other warnings including fire danger ratings, total fire bans and hazard reduction activities.

Rural Fire Service NSW

The RFS is the organization that usually manages bushfires in regional Australia. Their website has lots of information about preparing and surviving a bushfire as well as latest news and mapping (shared with Hazards Near Me app)

DEA Hotspots

Using data from satellites, this website shows areas of heat (i.e. fires) on a map. It is usually updated every couple of hours so it can give an accurate idea of the location of fires that may not be officially recorded yet. It can also be a useful app to crosscheck the Hazards Near Me app.


A great app for showing the real time direction and strength of wind that may carry embers or the whole bushfire disaster towards you. It’s also great outside of the bushfire season for picking primo conditions at crags.

ABC Local Radio

If you are in an area outside of mobile coverage, the local ABC station on your car radio will usually give updates on the bushfire situation. Know the local station channel before leaving home.

The Blue Mountains is very prone to bushfires – as seen in this 2019 “hotspot” image during Black Summer.

Help our Firefighters

  • Never park in front of gates – these are access points for fire trucks.
  • Don’t drive down “closed” fire roads or park on the edges of narrow roads – these need to be clear and have enough space for a firetruck to do a U turn in an emergency. Park well off the road.
  • Don’t fly drones during bushfires – these are a major hazard to helicopters and aircraft who are putting out fires. Drones in National Parks can only be operated after a permit is acquired any time of the year.
  • Follow instructions from any emergency service worker and if asked to leave an area do so promptly.


Humans have been sitting around campfires for hundreds of thousands of years. Follow these guidelines so your campfire doesn’t turn into a bushfire.

  • Before lighting up, check if it is a Total Fire Ban. No campfires can be lit (even in formal fire pits) during a Total Fire Ban. Even if it is allowed – do you really “need” a campfire in a summer heatwave? Windy weather is also not a great time to have a campfire.
  • Use formal metal fire pits when available (such as at Mt York). If you have to make a new fire area – make sure all vegetation is cleared for at least 2m around the fire and use rocks to make a ring to stop coals from escaping in the wind.
  • Have at least 5 liters of water nearby at all times to extinguish runaway bushfires.
  • Respect the anxiety of locals when camping with a fire near residential areas (i.e. most of the Blue Mountains). Informal fires in sneaky free bush sites are a major access concern to locals – the informal Big Top camping area was shut because of concerns around fires.
  • Don’t burn toilet paper – bury, or even better take it with you. Burning loo paper has started fires at climbing areas in Australia.
  • Bring your own firewood – hardwood from the servo will burn hot and efficiently. Throwing a bunch of dead gum leaves in the fire is a sure way to kick up a bunch of embers and start a bushfire. Never cut down upright trees to use as firewood.
  • Put out fires with water, not sand or dirt. Never leave a smoldering fire.
  • Did your campfire get out of control and start a bushfire? Don’t flee the scene and tell no-one! Report it immediately to 000. Lives are at stake.

After a Bushfire

The natural environment can often need weeks or months to recover after a bushfire. Land managers, such as National Parks, may close an area for this period. Respecting these closures will help plants regain their grip on the environment which stops erosion. Any nylon items such as fixed ropes, slings and hand lines will likely need replacement after fires. Bolts usually survive bushfires intact – but it is worth being careful when using them after a fire. Keep an eye out for bolt movement – or rock movement. If you see something damaged that needs replacing contact SRC Rebolting

Dam Cliffs area after the 2019 bushfires