Summer Fires in Australia

Februar 11 — 2020 | Canberra, Australia

Navigating Trails and Flames


Words and Photos: Claire Whitman

Summer in Canberra, Australia, is usually hot and dry, but this year we had a bigger issue that plagued our town, smoke. Australia was on fire, and Canberra was blanketed in thick smoke. Luckily there were no fires nearby, but the air quality for many days was rated the worst in the world.  Government authorities asked that we do not go outside unless absolutely necessary, and people were certainly not allowed to exercise outdoors. Very hard for us mountain bikers to handle; we live for the outdoors.

Summer is my favorite time of the year to ride. Sure, it can get pretty hot here in Australia, but you can always cool off with a swim after your ride. This summer, however, has been very different. Although the bushfire season had started unusually early in September, we eased into summer the same as usual. The difference this summer was the lack of rainfall - the drought. It plagued us for months and, in some areas, years. Everything was so dry — the trees, lakes, rivers and of course the trails. 

By Christmas Eve, there were over 100 fires burning in New South Wales, the state surrounding Canberra. Strong winds exacerbated the firefighting efforts, and the fires built up so much force they created a weather system "fire clouds" (pyrocumulonimbus), causing fire tornadoes that ignited further fires ahead of the main fire front. By New Year's Day, there were over 150 fires, 50 of which were burning out of control. To date, over 30 lives have been lost, 3,000 homes destroyed, and over half a billion animals killed, including protected and endangered species, and we are only halfway through summer...

I live in Canberra, the capital of Australia. Ten years ago, we hosted the MTB World Championships at my local hill, Stromlo Forest Park. Stromlo and many parts of Canberra, and surrounding areas, was destroyed by significant bush fires in 2003, and afterward, the government let us mountain bikers take it over. So, back then, there were no trees, no shrubs, no animals, no signs of life whatsoever, even the soil was depleted and dry. Fast forward 17 years to now, and we have a vast, diverse network of trails and lots of trees and wildlife. Sure, the trails are dry, loose and sketchy in places but this is mountain biking, so above all, it’s fun fun fun!!! 


As ride guides at the fundraiser, we wore various animal masks.

Throughout this disaster, I was proud to be part of a community that came together in the adverse conditions to help make a difference, which is the mountain bike community. Our local club CORC led by a wonderfully strong woman, Eva, held a fundraiser for wildlife rescue organizations to help with injured and displaced animals. We raised over $16,000 in a very short time, and got to ride our bikes together to boot! It is amazing to see the camaraderie that comes from this shared passion. Trails will be rebuilt over time, trees will grow back, and the animals will return. Aussies are a tough lot, and we will ride on!

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