‘Secret’ mission saves ‘dinosaur trees’ from Australia bushfires

By Clare Sibthorpe, news reporter

Firefighters in Australia have completed a “brave and secret mission” to save the world’s last-known natural grove of an ancient tree species commonly referred to as living fossils.
Known as “living dinosaurs”, records show the striking Wollemi Pines have existed for up to 200 million years.

They were thought to be extinct until 1994, when they were found deep inside a narrow, rugged canyon located 93 miles from Sydney.
The Royal Botanical Gardens referred to this as “one of the greatest botanical discoveries of our time”.

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In a challenging effort to protect the dwindling pines, the New South Wales government organised a “secret” mission to save them from the ferocious and unprecedented bushfires currently ravaging much of Australia.

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NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said the trees, which survived the dinosaurs, now seemed likely to survive the fires.

And he said the success was not easy to achieve.

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Image: The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and NSW Rural Fire Service undertook the difficult challenge. Pic: NSW government
“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,” Mr Kean said.
“The pines… which were thought to be extinct and whose location is kept secret to prevent contamination, benefited from an unprecedented environmental protection mission.”

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Mr Kean said the operation included large air tankers dropping fire retardant and specialist firefighters being winched from helicopters to set up an irrigation system in the gorge.
As the blaze advanced, firefighters were repeatedly hoisted into the isolated site to work the irrigation system, while helicopters watered the fire edge to minimise impact on the trees.

Image: The mission required a remote firefighting team using helicopters and air tankers to moisture the isolated grove. Pic: NSW government
Following a scientific assessment, Mr Kean said some trees were charred but the species were expected to survive the fires.
“The 2019 wildfire is the first ever opportunity to see the fire response of mature Wollemi Pine in a natural setting, which will help us refine the way we manage fire in these sites long-term,” he said.
However, Mr Kean said the full impact will not be known for some time – and with Australia’s bushfire season far from over, more damage could yet occur.
“Illegal visitation remains a significant threat to the Wollemi Pines survival in the wild due to the risk of trampling regenerating plants and introducing diseases which could devastate the remaining populations and their recovery,” he said.

Image: While the effort was deemed successful, the danger for the threatened trees may not be over. Pic: NSW government
Cris Brack, associate professor at the Australian National University, was “astonished” at the effort, including the “brave decision” to put people on the ground where there was no escape route from an overwhelming ember storm.
He said the mission was extremely important given how threatened the species were.
“There are so few in the wild, they have been individually named,” Professor Brack said.
“One small fire or introduced soil pathogen could easily wipe them out.”
Bushfires in Australia have been burning since September and have claimed the lives of 28 people, killed more than a billion animals and ripped through forests and farmland the size of Bulgaria – causing major cities to record some of the world’s worst air quality.

Source : Sky News