Helicopter evacuates hikers and bikers in Kosciuszko National Park during fire threat

Josh Grant and Kate Greenham being escorted to safety by a helicopter. Picture: Supplied
Josh Grant and Kate Greenham being escorted to safety by a helicopter. Picture: Supplied

When Josh Grant and Kate Greenham set off on their adventure into the Jagungal Wilderness in Kosciuszko National Park one of their goals was to escape the smoke that had engulfed their home in the Blue Mountains.

They didn't expect to have their five-day trip cut short when they were evacuated from the park by helicopter on New Years Eve, but in the circumstances they couldn't have been more grateful.

When the experienced adventuring couple set off on their planned "bikepacking" trip on December 29 there were no fires burning nearby.

The following day, unbeknownst to them, a fire was started by lightning strike in the region. On December 31, Mr Grant and Ms Greenham thought they might be in trouble. The sky was clouding over with thick smoke, they had no phone service and nowhere to shelter.

"We were wondering what we should do," Mr Grant said. He had a personal locator beacon, but without knowing how close the fires were, they weren't sure if they were in immediate danger.

They crossed paths with some hikers who advised they might get reception at a carpark on Happy Jacks Road, but when they arrived there was no one there and no phone service.

"We were hoping to find some workers, or emergency services or someone along there who could give us some information as to where the fire was or where we should go."

When that plan failed, they decided to high-tail it along their planned route where they had about another 65 kilometres to go to reach their van. It was meant to take another two to three days of scenic riding to cover that much ground.

The ominous black smoke was getting thicker by the minute until the pair was rescued. Picture: Supplied

The ominous black smoke was getting thicker by the minute until the pair was rescued. Picture: Supplied

At this point it was about 2pm in the afternoon and they were starving. They stopped by a creek to cook up a meal and it was then that a helicopter started circling overhead.

"We had stopped in an open valley where the smoke was not as thick," Mr Grant recalled.

"As soon as [the helicopter] appeared it began to circle around us and I immediately felt relieved, they had spotted us easily."

Ms Greenham, however, thought they had been busted for boiling water for their noodles.

"If only it were that easy to summon help, I would have insisted we ate earlier," Mr Grant joked.

The helicopter landed within 100 metres of the pair, and two officials strode towards them.

"They stated we were in the direct line of fire... They needed to lift us out of there, now."

The view from the helicopter. Picture: Supplied

The view from the helicopter. Picture: Supplied

Mr Grant said it "was quite the dose of adrenaline", and it all happened so quickly. They were able to load their bikes onto the helicopter and it was about a 10-minute flight until they were dropped at the showground in Cooma.

"They flew straight to Cooma to drop us off, refuel and head back to search for more people. There were a lot of people out there still," Mr Grant said.

They profusely thanked the crew, made up of Defence and firefighting personnel, and headed straight for the pub.

"We were given prompt directions to the best one in town, and a card should we need any assistance," Mr Grant said.

They ran into the hikers they had spoken to on their travels, who had also been evacuated from the area but by truck.

Mr Grant said the fire took another day to reach where they were, but the area is burnt now.

Kate earlier in the trip, enjoying the spectacular scenery of the Kosciuszko wilderness. Picture: Supplied

Kate earlier in the trip, enjoying the spectacular scenery of the Kosciuszko wilderness. Picture: Supplied

He said it was devastating to know that the spectacular area they had travelled through had since been ravaged.

"It's beautiful alpine bog wilderness, in the higher elevations you've got all the low-lying vegetation and swampy habitats which are home to a number of threatened species which I'm pretty devastated about."

He said that kind of environment is not tolerant of or reliant on fire like eucalypt forests, and it would take a long time for it to recover, if it ever fully did.

In hindsight, Mr Grant said perhaps they should have thought twice about their wilderness adventure in light of the fires in other parts of NSW.

"Even though there wasn't any immediate threat when we set off, we were in the height of the worst bushfire season Australia has ever seen. It makes me sad to think the summer adventures might become off limits as our climate continues to become hotter and drier, and bushfire risk becomes more frequent and severe," he said.

The couple's van with much of their gear remains stranded in the national park.

Kate and Josh early on in their trip in the Jagungal Wilderness. Picture: Supplied

Kate and Josh early on in their trip in the Jagungal Wilderness. Picture: Supplied

But the biggest lesson for the pair, and the reason they decided to share their story first with We Are Explorers and then here, was the importance of their trip intention form.

When Mr Grant asked how the helicopter had found them, they were told National Parks had provided their itinerary information from their trip intention form.

"It really proved how useful they can be," he said.

A National Parks and Wildlife Services spokesman said since 2016, about 6670 trip intention forms have been submitted to the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and NSW police stations for trips mostly throughout the Blue Mountains National Park and Kosciuszko National Park.

"In the event that a walker does not return from their trip as expected by their emergency contact or activates a personal locator beacon, or conditions change throughout a park, NSW Police lead the search and rescue response," the spokesman said.

"The rescue on 31 December 2019 in the Jagungal Wilderness Area of Kosciuszko National Park is a good example of why people should complete trip intention forms."

This story Kosciuszko fire threat leads to backcountry rescue mission first appeared on The Canberra Times.