Unprecedented Fires Are Transforming Unique Australian Ecosystems

The Gondwana Rainforests were meant to be protected in perpetuity. They are among the areas that have recently burned.

In September of last year, the Gondwana Rainforests community advisory committee was meeting at Binna Burra Lodge in Lamington National Park, one of the northern-most protected areas of the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area. The committee agreed to write to the Australian Environment Minister about the threat climate change poses to the rainforests and urge the country to mitigate climate change and fulfil its obligation to transmit World Heritage sites intact to future generations. The day after the resolution was passed, committee members were evacuated from Binna Burra lodge as Lamington National Park was engulfed in bushfire.

photo of australia fire
More than 24 million acres have burned across Australia this wildfire season, including more than half the area of Kangaroo Island, pictured. Photo by robdownunder / Flickr.

Six weeks later, northern New South Wales was plunged into a bushfire crisis that burned a million hectares of land in November before extending to the Sydney Basin, Victoria, and Tasmania. The Stirling Ranges in Western Australia, one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, and more than half of the total area of Kangaroo Island off South Australia, a unique ark that is home to threatened populations of dunnarts and black cockatoos, have burned as well.

Now, in mid-January, every corner of the continent has been impacted, whether from the fires or smoke. By January, 28 people had been killed in fires, including several frontline fire-fighting volunteers, and upwards of two thousand homes had been lost. Scientists and WWF Australia estimate a billion animals have died and most of the range and population of between 20 and 100 threatened species have burned. The total area burned has reached more than 10 million hectares, or 24 million acres. Half of that area is in New South Wales where extensive areas of protected forests and woodland have been reduced to ash.

The Gondwana rainforests comprise 40 individual reserves from Goomburra State Forest in southern Queensland to Barrington Tops National Park in the Hunter region of New South Wales. They harbor an irreplaceable living record of the evolution of rainforests and flowering plants over a hundred million years. Asked what makes these rainforests special, ecologist Mark Graham says, “They can teach us so much about resilience and persistence through immense global change. They’re the most stunning beautiful places: they’re temples of nature.”

From the carboniferous period they preserve the oldest vestiges of the world’s ferns. From the Permian they host fossilized Araucarians, the world’s most ancient conifers. The world’s most ancient songbird lineage sings there, too: its current scions are lyrebirds and scrub birds. Other Gondwana descendants currently living in the rainforests are thornbills and gerygones, crayfish, land snails, velvet worms, glow-worms, and the Richmond Birdwing Butterfly.

These World Heritage rainforests are nestled within in a rich mosaic of wet, dry, closed, and open eucalypt forest types that is unique on the Australian continent. They harbor dozens of endemic species, hundreds of rare and threatened plants, and close to 700 vertebrate fauna species, nearly a quarter of which are threatened. Between November 2019 and January 2020, fires had burned in 28 of the Gondwana reserves and hundreds of thousands of hectares of eucalypt forest across a 600 kilometer stretch of the eastern Australian escarpment.

For conservationists in New South Wales, the names of the places besieged by fire during the cataclysm were familiar: Chaelundi, Mummel Gulf, Washpool, Wild Cattle Creek, Styx River. These protected areas were created following community campaigns by the North East Forest Alliance (NEFA) over the last 40 years — including blockades, court cases, advocacy efforts, and more — to protect rainforests, old-growth and remnant habitats of great forest owls, gliders, and other wildlife. One name inspires more love than any other: Terania Creek, a rainforest basin saved four decades ago by the world’s first non-violent forest blockade. The area is now part of the Gondwana Rainforest World Heritage Area, and was meant to be preserved in perpetuity. It is among the places that have recently burned. The last time fire burned there was more than a millennium ago.

Fire is a natural event in many Australian landscapes, but not in the Gondwana forests. Environmental degradation since European invasion, combined with the record-breaking temperatures caused by climate change, threaten to utterly transform ecosystems that have survived here for tens of millions of years.

Photo by Georgina Woods.
Parts of the Gondwana Rainforests, which are not prone to fire, have burned this fire season. Others, like Border Ranges National Park (pictured), thankfully have not. Photo by Georgina Woods.

Fire management is political: the creation of an extensive National Parks estate from southern Queensland down into Tasmania in the last half-century was fiercely opposed by the timber industry. Fires in National Parks tend to be interpreted by logging interests as evidence that the Parks should never have been created, or that they are not being managed adequately. (Thanks to budget cuts, the NSW Parks service has a third of the fire managers it had five years ago). Even while the disaster continues to unfold and before the ecological toll has been assessed, the forestry industry is pushing to open National Parks to logging and the Federal Government is declaring it plans to loosen already-generous laws for native vegetation clearing on private land.

Australian scientists have known and warned for two decades that climate change would bring more numerous and more intense bushfires. A study in 2007 forecast that by 2020, with one degree of global warming, the number of days with fire danger higher than “very high” would increase by 10 to 65 percent. More recently, veteran leaders of the country’s emergency services warned the current Government in April 2019 that this bushfire season was likely to be the worst we had ever seen, due to the impacts of climate change and drought. They warned we were unprepared for the cataclysm, both in our response to climate change and in our resourcing of emergency services.

We’re now seeing these predictions come to pass. In eastern Australia, increased temperatures year-round means there is a lot less moisture around, dramatically increasing fire risk. Large parts of New South Wales have in the last three years suffered their lowest rainfall on record. And we are currently experiencing our worst fire season on record. Conditions are poised to worsen as temperatures keep rising.

I WENT NORTH at the end of November to visit a small community called Elands, on the Bulga plateau in Biripi country. To the south, at Bobin, friends of mine had lost their home and their local school to fires that month. Favorable weather helped the Elands community avoid that fate, though fire threatened on three sides for three weeks. NEFA campaigner Susie Russell sat on her veranda during night time fire watch as trickling flames came within meters of her home, and listened to the crash of centuries-old trees falling. Old-growth trees are often hollow, and if ground-level fire gets inside, they become roman candles, a pillar of flame shooting sparks out of its hollow branches.

A week after the flames went through, Susie and I walked in the nearby forest reserve. Fire had brought down up to half the large old trees that provide the best habitat for arboreal mammals and had even penetrated into the cool temperate rainforest. Gaping cavities two-arm-spans-wide were all that remained of centuries-old blue gums where fire had chewed down through them and reduced them to dirty orange ash. A fallen coachwood still smouldered inside so we returned with rakes to clear debris around it to lessen the chance that it would reignite the fire. A fresh fall of rain doused the forest during my stay, leaving a landscape of orange, yellow and slate grey, with patches of bright green grass. Pale yellow leaves gather in furrows, reminding me of forgotten and discarded leaves of two decades of climate change science, advocacy, protest and pleadings.

A Coachwood trunk smolders in Ellenborough Falls Reserve in New South Whales. Photo by Georgina Woods.
A Coachwood trunk smolders in Ellenborough Falls Reserve in New South Whales. Photo by Georgina Woods.

Further north, one of the largest and most spectacular areas of Gondwana rainforest and Antarctic beech is harbored by New England National Park in Dunghutti, Anaiwan and Gumbaynggirr country. Ecologist Mark Graham lives on the edge of the Park and for weeks he has been leading teams of rugged volunteers, or heading off on his own, to undertake remote fire protection in the World Heritage Area. He tells me, “A great crew of vollies [volunteer firefighters] and caring and concerned people have been up in the forest with rake-hoes and hand tools creating mineral soils containment lines to prevent the spread of fire to protect special places and trees.”

These forests, Graham says, have weathered the breakup of Gondwana, the asteroid hitting the Yucatan, and multiple ice-ages but there are doubts now about their future and their capacity to exist in the hot and dangerous times we have created. There’s so little moisture in the landscape, that trees and ecosystems that previously resisted fire are going up in flames with hardly a sigh. Graham says the word “drought” “doesn’t pass muster” as a description of what has been happening over the last few years in eastern Australia: “It’s more like the ‘great east coast desiccation event.’”

Cooler temperatures and rains arrived to some fire-ravaged regions since the wildfire season began, giving exhausted communities and fire-fighting crews time to build containment lines, assess damage, and re-open roads, while they listen to weather forecasts warning that dangerous fire-weather will return again in a few days’ time. Large coastal communities, cut off by fires, remain without power, fresh water, and food and fuel supplies. Most of the forested catchment for Sydney’s largest water storage has burned, bringing the risk of contamination when rains do come and wash ash, dead animals and fire retardant into the creeks and rivers that feed the dam. It is impossible to convey the sense of shock and anguish that is hanging like a pall over the country, made visible by the lingering smoke that shrouds our major cities. The work of recovery will last for years, likely even decades.

Despite these major threats, since the current government took office in 2013, Australia has slashed funding for climate science, repealed legislation for a price on carbon, disbanded its climate science advisory council, and left the country’s energy sector rudderless, resulting in a messy, slow, and expensive transition to nowhere. Protests have broken out in solidarity with bushfire survivors and anger at our Federal Government’s obstinate refusal to recognize this emergency for what it is: Kids and teenagers staged a camp out at the Prime Minister’s Sydney residence, Kirribilli House; bushfire survivors have been arrested protesting political inaction; graffiti has appeared accusing our political representatives of killing koalas and the country with climate denial.

In Elands, a Rural Fire Service volunteer told me that it’s most effective to fight a fire from burned ground. That will have to be our rallying cry from now on Down Under. Our beloved world is being transformed around us, and to hold those responsible to account, we must move past the flames and into the ashes.

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