Park reopens with a welcome to the Prom

WILSONS Promontory National Park will reopen to visitors this Saturday, 41 days after a lightning strike started a bushfire that burnt half the much-loved bushland.

Entry will be free for day visitors for six days in a bid to lure travellers back to the park and to South Gippsland. The park will reopen to campers and other overnight visitors from Friday, March 27, when fees will apply.

Wilsons Promontory features such as the Tidal River camping ground, Squeaky Beach, Norman Bay and some of the nearby short walks were untouched by the fire and will reopen on Saturday.

But popular longer walks such as the Telegraph Track to the Wilsons Promontory Lighthouse and the track to Sealers Cove will remain shut until further assessments are carried out next week.

The walking tracks in the park's more remote north, where the fire burnt more thoroughly, will remain shut indefinitely.

Despite the damage caused by the long-running and erratic fire, which burnt 25,200 hectares of the park over 36 days, the natural beauty of the area remains largely intact.

Environment Minister Gavin Jennings visited the prom yesterday and urged Victorians to do likewise. He said the park would regenerate quickly.

"We'd anticipate, come spring, we'll see colours in heathlands that we haven't seen for decades. The last time a fire came through parts of this park was in 1951. So for the past six decades, tea-tree has almost taken over, and (now) that tea-tree has been removed and we'd anticipate the heathlands coming to life," Mr Jennings said.

During a short helicopter flight over the southern half and centre of the prom yesterday, scenery that had not been seen in decades was on show. On the eastern side of the prom, the fire burnt comprehensively through Five Mile Swamp at the rear of Five Mile Beach.

While the fire has burnt out most of the tea-tree, swamp paperbark and tussock which inhabited the swamp, it left some spectacular scenery behind. Stretching through the swamp for at least half the length of Five Mile Beach are two long, thin strips of green, about 50 metres apart.

The strips are aligned as though they could be marking an aircraft runway, but they are, in fact, rows of thousands of grass trees that survived the fire and appear to be thriving.

A third strip of green lies further north and closer to the beach.

Park ranger Jim Whelan said the grass trees were sitting on top of ancient sand dunes and would have been totally hidden until the fire scorched its way through the swamp.

Nearby, a hidden valley of mountain ash trees - estimated to date to the 1700s and held in awe by Parks Victoria staff because of their heritage value and beauty - has been untouched by the fire.

The fire started just a short distance south of the Five Mile Swamp, on the eastern face of the Cathedral Range, only about 100 metres from the water's edge. From the air yesterday, this site looked innocuous, the east face of the Cathedral having been burnt in only a mosaic pattern, largely in the treetops, with much of it still green and unburnt.

The peaks, hills and valleys lying in the middle of the prom have either escaped the fire altogether or only been burnt in a similar mosaic pattern that has left fire-affected, reddish brown treetops surrounded by unburnt green treetops. Virtually all of the prom south of Tidal River escaped the fire altogether.

However, in some other parts of the park where the fire was most fierce and the fuel most flammable, some of the remaining trees and other vegetation resembles spindly, wobbly and blackened sticks.