Secrets and fires: saving our 'dinosaur' trees

By AG STAFF 15 January 2020
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Shhhhh. How specialist remote-area fire crews saved the ancient Wollemi pines.

Thanks to the dedicated efforts of firefighters, Australia’s only known natural stand of Wollemi pines was spared from the recent bushfires in NSW.

Above Wollemi National Park, north-west of Sydney, air tankers dropped fire retardant and water-bombers opened artificial heavens to halt the raging Gospers Mountain bushfire from gobbling up the ancient grove. Specialist firefighters, too, were winched into the remote gorge by helicopter to establish an irrigation system designed to slow the flames advance.

According to NSW Environment and Energy Minister Matt Kean, “Wollemi National Park is the only place in the world where these trees are found in the wild and, with less than 200 left, we knew we needed to do everything we could to save them. It was like a military-style operation.”

The operation was kept largely under wraps by the National Parks and Wildlife Service and the Rural Fire Service to avoid revealing the pines’ whereabouts.

In 1994 the botanical find of the century was discovered in Wollemi National Park. The 30-m high wollemi pine (Wollemi nobilia), a 150-million-year-old relic of ancient Gondwana known only from fossils, was found in a grove growing in one secret canyon. A couple of other groves of the pine have been found within the park and security cameras and warning signs deep in the bush help to protect them.

Fossils evidence suggests the trees existed between 200 million and 100 million years ago and were once present across the whole of Australia.

The Gospers Mountain fire, started by lightning on 26 October, burnt through more than 512,000 hectares before crews contained the blaze in recent days.

To date, more than 5.2 million hectares have been ravaged by fires in NSW. National wildlife losses are estimated at one billion.