I’ve Seen The Worst Of The Wildlife Devastation. Here’s Why I Think There’s Hope.
Australia is the only “developed” mega-biodiverse nation on the planet.
Sitting in company with nations such as Indonesia and Brazil with their tropical rainforests, we are privileged to be the custodians of a truly remarkable natural heritage that is totally unique at the global scale. People from around the world recognise this and most overseas visitors want to experience our nature.
Much of this natural heritage is contained in the forests of south-eastern Australia. These forests harbour, amongst many amazing and distinguishing features, the tallest flowering plants and some of the most ancient forests on the planet. These ancient “Gondwanan” forests are largely unchanged across a history that extends back to well before the extinction of the dinosaurs.
Our forests provide drinking water to so many of the residents of our nation --most notably those living in Brisbane, Canberra, Melbourne, Sydney and all the major towns and cities in between. They also provide the water that is the lifeblood of our national breadbasket: the Murray-Darling Basin. This water supply is critically dependent on the organic matter (biomass) within these forests. A reduction in biomass will result in a reduction in water availability.
There is some evidence Australia has experienced fire extending back to the origins of forested vegetation cover of this continent -- a fire history of potentially 200 million years. During the 60,000 years, or more, of Aboriginal custodianship of Australia, fire has been integral to life, its use highly sophisticated and our biota was maintained.
Since September 2019 a massive swathe of South-eastern Australian forest has burnt, much of it very hot and very fast. In many landscapes, essentially all native vegetation has been incinerated. The latest count in NSW alone stands at considerably more than five million hectares, with a national total now exceeding 10 million hectares.
This total is growing daily; troublingly, the fire season has a long way to go. Our current fire situation is now well beyond anything in our history and serious concerns are now held about the future of our biodiversity, our water supplies (and water security) and human safety.
Unlike our current rolling four-five month long and seemingly unstoppable fire crisis, in the past, fires have always been patchy, have relented over time and there have always been unburnt areas. These provide refuge for our wildlife and allow our biodiversity to persist and survive.
Native species have previously been able to recolonise burnt areas from these unburnt refuges. Because so much of our forest has burnt and there are no unburnt refuges, our globally significant wildlife has sustained a catastrophic impact.
Because of these fires, extinctions of native plants and animals may already have occurred, and many future extinctions seem inevitable. Serious concerns are held for the future of the Long-footed Potoroo, Kangaroo Island Dunnart, Brush-tailed Rock Wallaby, a rainforest frog from Northeast NSW awaiting formal scientific description and many other poorly known critters.
So what has changed and what has caused this frightening, and in many respects apocalyptic scenario? Put simply, due to several years of historically low rainfall, water and moisture have practically disappeared from these forests and the landscapes surrounding them.
This has meant that fires now start very easily and they run hot and fast. Where previously “wet breaks” in the landscape would stop fire, along riverbank forests, wetlands and rainforests, due to the absence of moisture now there is absolutely nothing to halt the spread of fire.
World Heritage-listed Gondwana rainforests between the Barrington Tops and the Gold Coast hinterland are now burning; the very existence of these forests indicates that they have remained permanently moist for tens of millions of years and have never burnt out.
On the Dorrigo Plateau there have recently been crown fires within Antarctic Beech rainforests (forests that once covered much of Antarctica, Australia and South America) burning with such ferocity that they have thrown charred leaves into the air to land 14 kilometres away in my front yard.
But in all this loss there have been many situations to celebrate. The best of the Gondwana forests in my valley have been protected from fire by the actions of the Darkwood RFS brigade, NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, our community and many caring volunteers. Here, the tallest known tree in NSW, an 80m tall Tallowwood and 4000 hectares of surrounding old growth forest has been protected from fire.
There have been remarkable community efforts to provide water, food and shelter for wildlife in the aftermath of the fires. People are already building nest boxes to replace the tens of millions of tree hollows lost to fire.
Going forward we need to hang on to as much unburnt country as we can -- our future literally depends on this. We need to ensure that forests are given the best chance to recover -- we need to make sure that forests are not degraded by weed invasions post-fire, we need to make sure that surviving wildlife will not be hoovered up by cats and foxes. This will require major public investment and a huge and ongoing community effort. But what greater priority could there be than the future of our life support systems?