From Australia: Boston University students help in recovery efforts after devastating brush fires

Students Amanda Jakubiak, Sarah Alaimo and staff advisor Jenna Tomlinson carry off branches to the chipper in Blackheath, NSW on February 3, 2020. Photo by Mollie Hersh / BU News Service

By Mollie Hersh
BU News Service

Boston University students studying abroad in Sydney joined the relief effort in the Campbell Rhododendron Garden Monday morning to help clear damage from the devastating bushfires sweeping across Australia.

Students performed a variety of tasks alongside the volunteer staff: pulling weeds, transporting new rhododendrons for planting and pruning away dead branches to make way for emerging sprouts. 

The bottom half of the gardens are completely blackened. Sign posts labeling each species of rhododendron are hunks of charcoal, the metal curling into itself. The smell of ash is inescapable.

“You hear about it, and you just want to help and give back,” student volunteer Amanda Jakubiak said. “So much has been taken away from them, so you figure you do what you can to help.”

Patches of life peek through the blackened gum trees in Blackheath, NSW on February 3, 2020. Photo by Mollie Hersh / BU News Service

The Campbell Rhododendron Gardens, commonly referred to as the Rhodo Gardens, have been a staple of the Blue Mountains community for 50 years for its unique combination of both native and exotic flora. However, over 30 acres of the property was lost to the recent outbreak of bushfires which burned through the region from late November and through December.

“We don’t know how many plants we are going to be able to revive,” said volunteer Garden Supervisor Dick Harris.

Harris has been attached to the Rhodo Gardens for decades, creating the garden with fellow nursery owner Ib Sorenson in 1968 and joining the volunteer staff in 2005 after his retirement. Now at 78 years old, Harris continues to work alongside his 20 person team of volunteers, pulling long hours to save what is left of the rhododendrons.

Though the Rhodo Gardens have since reopened to the public, several pathways through the gardens are still blocked off, waiting to be cleared of hazardous debris. Dried out branches and the charred remains of gum trees litter the paths. Many trees are unstable and in danger of collapse.

Dick Harris helps BU volunteers trim back dead rhododendron branches in Blackheath, NSW on February 3, 2020. Photo by Mollie Hersh / BU News Service

The worst of the damage can be traced back to the garden’s hanging swamp, high-altitude swamps that form throughout the Blue Mountains’ slopes. The swamp produced large amounts of methane, a highly flammable gas that spread the fire in seconds.

“It practically explodes,” Harris said as he surveyed all that is left of the swamp.

The Blackheath community has united behind the effort to restore the Rhodo Gardens. Before David Sutton joined the volunteer staff, he would bring his daughter to see the rhododendrons just like the ones growing at his home.

“The amount of bushland that’s been burned is phenomenal,” he said when describing the devastation that swept through the mountains, including his own town of Lithgow.

Sutton places some of the blame on the Australian government for failing to allow controlled burn backs, a farming tradition dating back to the Aboriginal people. The excess of dead brush combined with increasing temperatures, lightning strikes and severe drought conditions have caused the bushfires to become more frequent and intense.

BU students work alongside volunteers to restore the Campbell Rhododendron Gardens in Blackheath, NSW on February 3, 2020. Photo by Mollie Hersh / BU News Service.

The road to restoration will be a long and expensive one, estimated to take anywhere from four to six years. However, the gardens are already showing signs of recovering plant life as tiny green shoots peek through the ashes.

No one is more enthusiastic about the emerging growth than Harris. A smile lit up his face every time he spotted the smallest indication of new growth.

“Look at him,” he said, pointing out a small plant growing out of a blackened gum tree. “He’s starting right out at the bottom.”

Harris knows better than anyone the struggle the gardens have to face in the coming years, but remains “fully confident that we will get the Rhododendron Gardens back.”

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