Australia after the bushfires
The wildfires that swept the country in 2019 and 2020 were on a scale that is difficult to fathom. By the end of February, they had destroyed about 85,000 sq km (32,820 sq miles) of forest and affected nearly 3 billion animals
But what does the landscape look like now? With Covid-19 closing state borders, the Guardian took a virtual journey through the blackened path of Australia’s summer of bushfires.
Nightcap national park
There is a misty spot by a creek at the bottom of a valley in a perennially damp patch of ancient rainforest where you can travel millions of years into the past without needing a time machine
We are in Nightcap national park, in the Gondwana forests, on the southern flanks of a volcano that erupted 23 million years ago. It has long been swamped with the deep greens of an understory layer watched over by trees more than two metres in diameter and 50 metres tall.
This is where ecologist Robert Kooyman first returned once the fires were out and the flames had licked the thin barks of these ancient trees.
Now, pink ribbons and stakes mark out observation plots where Kooyman is recording the forest’s every move – from changes in the leaf litter to every new shoot or dying tree.
As he moves through the burnt forest, there are charcoal chunks underfoot and crisp brown leaves hanging on to dead branches. As he walks from burned to unburned, he is struck again by the “incredible complexity of greens and how alive everything is”.
The evolutionary lines of the plants here are measured in tens of millions of years. They are not evolved to burn.
It’s a deeply emotional and visceral thing. You can’t spend four decades in a place and know individual trees and then not be moved. There have been a lot of moments like that
Even so, about a quarter of Kooyman’s beloved Nightcap national park, in the world-heritage listed Gondwana rainforests of northern New South Wales, was razed in November 2019.
“It’s a deeply emotional and visceral thing,” says Kooyman. “You can’t spend four decades in a place and know individual trees and then not be moved. There have been a lot of moments like that.”
A week or so after the fires had burned out in February, with trunks still smouldering, Kooyman headed straight for that misty spot in the park where he stands today. Back in 1988, the botanist had knelt down to pick up some leaves he didn’t recognise – and in the process discovered a new species that became known as the Nightcap oak.
Like much of the flora in this remnant patch of rainforest, the Nightcap oak has barely evolved since Australia and Antarctica parted from the supercontinent called Gondwana about 40 million years ago. Its ancestors go back another 30 million years.
Unlike Australia’s eucalyptus trees, these rainforest species have not adapted to tolerate fire. “The heat breaks and splits the bark and induces mortality and serious injury,” says Kooyman.
A fire in an ancient rainforest doesn’t just take out trees that are hundreds of years old that in turn sprouted from trees that took root 10,000 or so years before. It also opens the dense canopy that keeps other non-rainforest species out, and threatens one of the last remaining vestiges of the Earth’s ancient supercontinent.
“This is one of the greatest survival stories in biological history anywhere on the planet,” says Kooyman. “What we have at risk is 70m years of deep time history and 40m years of isolated Australian history and its connections with Antarctica.”
As Australia drifted away from Antarctica, that continent lost its flora. Another chunk drifted to South America. In Patagonia, scientists are finding 52m-year-old fossils in layers of volcanic ash that are near identical to the species in Australia’s Gondwana rainforests.
“That’s the incredible storyline,” he says. “It’s the most amazing journey across half the Earth.”
Kooyman has been setting up plots to record the impact of the fires. He’s seeing some trees sprouting and seedlings emerging. But he is also seeing more trees dying.
We’ve lost hundreds of years of forest growth
“Tree death can be slow,” he says. “Once the base is burned and it’s gone through the bark, in the weeks and months after you’ll see a decline in the health of the canopy. I’m still seeing mortalities six months after the fires.
“We’ve lost hundreds of years of forest growth.”
There are 40 reserves that make up the world heritage-listed Gondwana rainforest area. More than half burned in the latest fires.
Over millions of years, these rainforests have contracted to tiny remnants. Now, says Kooyman, increasing CO2 in the atmosphere is delivering “rising temperatures and prolonged droughts”.
Last year was Australia’s driest and hottest on record, with temperatures 1.52C above average across the continent. In the state of New South Wales, temperatures were 1.95C above average. While official records go back to 1910, studies suggest the continent has not been this hot for at least 1,000 years.
The coal, oil and gas that fuel the modern world started forming hundreds of millions of years ago – even before the breakup of Gondwana. Levels of CO2 in the atmosphere have not been this high for at least three million years.
But it is precisely that burning of ancient fossilised plants that is driving the more intense and increasingly frequent bushfires that are killing Australia’s wildlife.
About five hours drive south of Nightcap national park is Port Macquarie, where Cheyne Flanagan is clinical director in the town’s famous koala hospital. Scores of the iconic marsupials were treated for burns during the fires
“It was organised chaos,” Flanagan says. “Now, it’s lovely and quiet. The animals we patched up are back out there and it’s given us the chance to get on with what we want to do next.”
The Port Macquarie area is a koala stronghold in New South Wales, but their numbers have dropped by about two-thirds in the past 20 years because of land clearing, habitat fragmentation, disease and now fire. More than 6,000 of the state’s koalas died in the fires. Tragically few could be saved in facilities such as Flanagan’s.
“Their strategy [to escape fire] is to climb to the top of the tree,” she says. “They’ve developed that over millions of years. Now the trees are smaller and the fires are more intense and getting to the top of the tree doesn’t save you.”
The chaos that engulfed the hospital in October last year – with vets, volunteers and media scrambling for space – has now passed. An initial $25,000 (£14,000) crowdfunding goal to buy watering stations for koalas was quickly oversubscribed. Now the hospital is planning new research and breeding facilities with the $7.5m that eventually came in.
“We thought we might get $25,000, but we didn’t know about all the media interest. The world was watching – not just the koalas, but all of Australia. It was Armageddon for a long time,” says Flanagan.
Just before Easter, with coronavirus restrictions starting to tighten, the hospital realised it wouldn’t have enough people to care for the koalas that were left, so plans were drawn up to release 26 into two nature reserves. Plans to get permits to fit radio collars were dropped. Time had run out.
At Lake Innes reserve, blackened eucalyptus trees were starting to sprout and there was enough food to keep the animals going. But another fire-affected area – Crowdy Bay national park – was not recovering.
“It looked bloody awful,” says Flanagan. “Trees that should have been 20 or 30 metres tall were two or three metres – just little sticks. There’s no way we could have released koalas there. There was not enough to sustain one koala on that site.”
For a decade or more the koalas that lived around the edges of Port Macquarie had been moved out to places such as Lake Innes and Crowdy Bay to stop them being hit by cars or attacked by family pets. Now those same animals – supposedly protected from encroaching humans – had perished in the fires.
“Unless we address our changing climate and what we’re doing to it, then we will revisit this scenario again. End of story,” says Flanagan.
Mark Lintermans knows a place that used to be well away from most humans. Once only the most dedicated hikers would drift through this isolated spot in Namadgi national park to the upper stretches of the Cotter River. “Then mountain bikes changed everything,” he says
The Cotter is the main source of water for Australia’s capital, Canberra. Upstream of the dams, the cobble-bottomed river is usually crystal clear. About 15m across at its widest, there are ankle-deep spots “you can jump across”.
Lintermans, of the University of Canberra, has been coming to this 20km stretch of river since the mid-80s, and has been researching threatened native species such as blackfish and Macquarie perch.
“It’s back country and it’s beautiful. There are these little huts scattered around. I’d sit in this place called Cotter’s hut – there, on a kangaroo-skin rug – and just listen to the dingoes howl. It was magical. It’s like a part of my family. I’ll go there until I can go there no more,” he says.
Lintermans’ experience of the area was changed in 2013 not by mountain bikers but by flames. A major bushfire ripped through subalpine grasslands, woods and forests. At the time, it was described as a “once in a lifetime fire”. “Then we had another one,” he says.
In late January this year, the heat from a military helicopter’s landing lamp was all it took to light tinder-dry grass that became the Orroral Valley fire. It burned across 865 sq km for a month, leaving just 20% of Namadgi national park untouched.
Rivers don’t escape bushfires. The fires leave layers of ash and baked soil and when it rains there is little vegetation left to stop the sludge running into the river. All that extra nutrient causes bacteria to grow, which in turn deoxygenates the water. Fish suffocate. Across the east of Australia, anywhere a river ran through a scorched area, a similar chain of events unfolded.
“I knew as soon as we had heavy rain the river was being hammered by ash and erosion,” says Lintermans.
Since the fire went out, he has been back four times. There are little shoots of green in the woodlands, though most of the canopy is gone. But what of the river’s stony bottom and deep pools – the places where native fish feed?
“When you get in, you sink in black ooze. It’s like chocolate blancmange,” he says.
The deeper pools in the river are now filled with silt. “That means the fish have lost their summer refuge. It can totally change the structure of the stream and some of that will stay there for decades.”
Before the fires, the east of Australia had experienced one of the sharpest droughts in living memory. For the rivers, this meant stream flows were well down. For a river like the Cotter, already broken up with dams, this meant fish populations were being isolated and left vulnerable.
Since 2006, Lintermans has been moving up to 300 Macquarie perch a year into the Cotter River from a population in a dam downstream that’s cut off from the upper parts of the river. “I can’t find any sign of them now. I feel like I’m back to square one,” he says.
People are out saving koalas. They don’t think about the fish
While fires were burning across Australia, Lintermans was leading a national effort to coordinate rescues and responses to protect the native fish. They are waiting to hear the results. He says he can’t remember a more stressful time.
“We were going to lose species and if I didn’t get it right, then there were going to be some fish that missed the boat,” he says. “People are out saving koalas. They don’t think about the fish.”
“What sort of a world would it be without birds?” asks Bob Semmens, an 87-year-old retired park ranger. “They’re helping me get through the days. If I look out of the window and they’re not there, well … the day would be a bit ordinary”
Semmens lives in Mallacoota, a town in Victoria’s East Gippsland, about 230km south-east of the Cotter River, that was surrounded by fire on New Year’s Eve 2019. Under a blood-orange daytime sky, hundreds of people fled to the beach.
Semmens has been doing bird surveys in the area for more than 30 years. When he heard there were birds washing up on the sand, he headed down. Among piles of washed-up blackened leaves he found about 30 different species – kookaburras, yellow-tailed cockatoos, rainbow lorikeets and gang-gang cockatoos among them.
“Talk about a sad sight. My eyes were a bit moist,” he says. “There must have been thousands of birds burned in the fire but the ones on the beach didn’t show any signs of being burned.
I’m going to keep doing the surveys but at the moment they’re showing a lot less birds. I was in one coast forest and didn’t see or hear a single bird
“They must have just been overcome by the heat and smoke and just dropped out of the sky. The little birds would have had real trouble. I saw some seagulls trying to swallow little dead thornbills.”
About 10km north-east of Mallacoota, the heathland scrub that straddles the Victoria-New South Wales border is home to the endangered eastern bristlebird – one of just three key sites in Australia for the small ground-dwelling species. If fire took hold there, it would be dealt a devastating blow.
With this in mind, the government of Victoria hatched a plan with Zoos Victoria and university experts to capture some of the birds. After weeks of planning, watching and waiting, a mission was launched in early February using a Singapore air force Chinook helicopter. It took a 250-tonne helicopter to save a 50-gram, pretty much flightless bird.
“It’s not the usual way to start a field trip,” says Mick Bramwell of Victoria’s environment department, who helped coordinate the rescue mission.
On board was Dr Rohan Clarke, an ornithologist at Monash University. As the Chinook followed the shoreline, he says there was a “vastness” of charred landscape covered in “black stalks” that used to be trees.
Clarke was on board because he’s a “gun” at catching birds. Using Bluetooth speakers playing a bristlebird song, and fine nets, the team caught 15 birds and flew them to a special aviary set up at Melbourne zoo.
In the end, the fire only skirted the edge of the rescue site. But on 28 February, just 5km away across the border in New South Wales, fire got into the nature reserve that supported about 200 other bristlebirds.
Today, Semmens has been out checking on the six habitats he has visited for decades doing bird surveys. “I’m going to keep doing the surveys but at the moment they’re showing a lot less birds. I was in one coast forest and didn’t see or hear a single bird. Then I got into the burned heathland and I didn’t see a bird there either.”
That is in contrast to Mallacoota town centre, where birds are appearing in unusually high numbers, feeding on seed and water being put out by locals. Clarke has counted 110 different species in the town in a single day.
Feeding birds isn’t something Semmens usually does, but he has made an exception in recent weeks. “I’ve gone through 70kg of seeds,” he says. “I think right now people appreciate having [the birds] round their houses. They’re colourful and they entertain you.”
The western side of Kangaroo Island is a biodiversity hotspot – a wilderness off the South Australian coast that is a smorgasbord of endangered species, some found nowhere else
In January, fire blackened much of this side of the island. As many as 25,000 koalas perished and the habitats of a number of threatened species were ravaged.
It’s about a 50km drive west from Heidi Groffen and Pat Hodgens’ place in Kingscote, Kangaroo Island’s main town, to the De-Tong Ling Buddhist retreat centre.
You just take a big deep breath when you get there and feel happy it didn’t burn
Some Buddhists will hide away and meditate for years at a time here.
“You just take a big deep breath when you get there and feel happy it didn’t burn,” Groffen says. But now, the unburnt bush land that surrounds the centre and 10 nearby properties has become a retreat of a different kind.
Whatever we can do, we’ll do. When you’re on an area of unburned land when so much else has been burned, this is our responsibility
“Every endangered species that we could have hoped for is still in there,” Hodgens says. “That means we have to throw everything at this patch of bush now.”
Already, they’ve found Kangaroo Island dunnarts, Southern brown bandicoots, glossy black-cockatoos, Kangaroo Island echidnas, heath goannas, southern emu wrens, Bassian thrush, western whipbirds and green carpenter bees.
Buddhist Kimball Cuddihy is the founder of the retreat. He says about 900 acres of the site is “complete wilderness”, untouched by human intervention except maybe for the “three times I’ve been lost in there”.
Cuddihy and the retreat have welcomed Groffen and Hodgens, who run the not-for-profit Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife.
“Whatever we can do, we’ll do. When you’re on an area of unburned land when so much else has been burned, this is our responsibility. We don’t really have a choice. I know how much healing this place can bring.”
Even before the fires, one of the biggest threats to Australia’s native wildlife – especially small mammals and birds – were feral cats. Just like in other burned habitats around the country, these cats are now using the open ground as hunting arenas for survivors.
“I’m catching very fat cats – they’re doing better than anything. It’s like heaven for them.
“They’re relentless. They’re moving across the burned landscape,” says Hodgens. Inspections of the stomachs of euthanised cats reveals “they’re eating a lot of small animals and birds”.
I’m catching very fat cats – they’re doing better than anything. It’s like heaven for them
Many places in the west are bursting with new green shoots but others are not faring so well. Groffen says one area they had worked in that runs up against Flinders Chase national park remains “like a moonscape” with no standing trees left. As if frozen, the bodies of kangaroos and wallabies are still attached to fences they ran into trying to escape the inferno.
Groffen swings between fatalism and optimism. “Even though the outcome might not be great, we know the work we’re doing will protect other species, but there’s always the risk that the genetic pool won’t be big enough for another 30 or 40 years,” she says.
“We don’t know yet whether the damage has already been done, but we know we can prevent extinctions by reducing the threats. That’s our drive to keep going.”
In a straight line, it is 3,400km from Nightcap national park in northern New South Wales to the Stirling Range in Western Australia
The Stirling Range national park is a spectacular mix of shrublands, forested gullies and mountain heaths that are home to a concentration of critically endangered plant species found nowhere else.
Sarah Barrett leads the recovery efforts for threatened plants in the area for the Western Australia Parks and Wildlife Service. Every day she’s dealing with overlapping threats from invasive diseases and now the climate crisis.
She says the area’s fire history was already causing concern. Fires in the eastern ranges in 2000 hit just nine years after the previous outbreaks, an interval too short for some plants to recover properly.
More recently, the intervals have been getting shorter. In May 2018, a fire burned through 140 sq km. On Boxing Day 2019, lightning strikes started three blazes in the park that razed 400 sq km. As the fires get closer together, the risk to wildlife escalates.
“If we get another fire in the next 10 years it will be a serious disaster,” she says.
Of 24 threatened species hit by the 2019 fires in the ranges, 20 of them exist nowhere else.
“We think that millions of years ago these species would have been widespread but in drier cycles they retreated over thousands of years to this refuge given by the mountains and gullies.”
We’re out there to stop things becoming extinct
One of the most imperilled plants on Barrett’s watchlist is a striking shrub called Banksia montana that itself is home to a mealybug thought to be unique to the plant. Like many plants in the region, it is susceptible to an invasive pathogen that attacks its roots.
After the 2018 fires, only eight adult Banksia montanas – each about 50 years old – remained on Earth, across four mountain tops in the ranges. The 2019 fires took those out, leaving no adult plants in the wild.
Hundreds of seedlings around the bases of the dead plants are poking out of the charred ground, but they are being nibbled by rabbits – another invader – and the native quokkas. Lots of small fences are going up. Insurance plantings are taking place outside the park, hopefully away from the fire threat.
Currently, 331 threatened and migratory species are known to have had part of their habitats scorched across Australia in the 2020 fires – including 271 plant species, 16 mammals, 14 frogs, nine birds, seven reptiles, four insects and one spider.
The fires acted like a final insult to the habitats and species being smashed by other pressures. As Barrett says: “Fire might be fine on its own, but you have these other factors. We’re out there to stop things becoming extinct.
“We just have to hope.”
Read the rest of the After the Bushfires series here and follow biodiversity reporters Phoebe Weston and Patrick Greenfield on Twitter for all the latest age of extinction coverage