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Facing bushfire lessons from Australia’s ancient Gondwana forests

“Those rainforests haven’t burnt for thousands of years, scientists have told me anecdotally,” he said.

“They just don’t burn. The tops of these mountains have these rainforests on top of them and then they transition out to eucalypt or wet sclerophyll forests.

“They are like the Galapagos Islands, but on top of mountains.”

Rainforest decimated in Mt Barney National Park. 'It was like sticks out of dust,' said Innes Larkin.

Rainforest decimated in Mt Barney National Park. ‘It was like sticks out of dust,’ said Innes Larkin.Credit:Innes Larkin, Mt Barney Lodge

Australia’s largest single tract of Antarctic Beech forest runs south from Mt Barney National Park across the New South Wales border to the 1300-metre high Mt Ballow and Mt Nothofagus – a name that comes from the scientific name for the Antarctic Beech, Nothofagus moorei.

“We got up on top of Mt Ballow. We didn’t get up on top of Mt Nothofagus,” Mr Larkin said.

Innes Larkin after fighting the bushfires in November 2019

Innes Larkin after fighting the bushfires in November 2019

“The top of Mt Ballow was free of fire, but it was on the approaches – the eastern aspects of it – that was where they were smashed.

“We stood on the ridge line that was normally covered in beautiful thick forest and it was just sticks out of dust.”

Mr Larkin, who was on the Gondwana Rainforests World Heritage Area Community Advisory Committee, said there really needs to be a “really, really low” moisture content for those rainforests to burn.

“They never burn. They are cloud forests. That is their design. If they are not getting clouds, they are drying out.”

Mt Barney National Park received only 350mm of rain in 2019, but surprisingly 500mm in February 2020, he said.

Replanting and weed removal to help the rainforest is too difficult in these inaccessible mountains, Mr Larkin said.

Instead, he said, governments need to prioritise the bigger picture and combat climate change.

“Climate change is creating the conditions that are making the forests susceptible to fire now and obviously getting worse in the future.”

The rare Antarctic Beech forests are only part of the Gondwana rainforest estate, which was given World Heritage listing in 1986 by New South Wales, with Queensland following suit in 1994.

Of the 366,500 hectares of Gondwana rainforest in both states, about 60,000 hectares are in south-east Queensland, in Lamington, Springbrook, Mt Barney and Main Range National parks. More than 18,515 hectares were burnt.

Extent of bushfire damage in Queensland's Gondwana rainforests.

Extent of bushfire damage in Queensland’s Gondwana rainforests.Credit:Australian Government

Paul Donatiu, a conservationist and team leader for Queensland’s Healthy, Land and Water – an independent environmental science body – describes the burning of rainforest at Lamington and Mt Barney as “unprecedented”.

Mr Donatiu overseesQue ensland bushfire restoration work at Lamington and Mt Barney being by groups of contracted ecologists and botanists, funded by the Australian Government’s $110 million national approach.

Queensland has – at this stage – received just $1.95 million but has been promised $4 million for restoration work and some fauna and flora studies at Lamington, Mt Barney and Main Range national parks.

Lamington National Park's Caves Circuit Walk in November 2020.

Lamington National Park’s Caves Circuit Walk in November 2020.Credit:Paul Donatiu

Mr Donatiu tells how he was at drought-wracked Binna Burra the day in September 2019 the bushfires burnt Binna Burra Lodge to the ground.

“As I headed down the mountain, fire trucks were heading up the mountain,” he said.

“The fire itself was spotting with the fire embers at least one kilometre ahead of the fire front.”

In August 2020 the federal government reported on the repair strategy after bushfires burnt 36 per cent of south-east Queensland’s rainforests.

Queensland’s Gondwana bushfires 2019-20

  • In Main Range National Park 69 per cent of the forest was burnt.
  • At Mount Barney National Park 78 per cent was significantly burnt.
  • At Lamington National Park, a little over 7 per cent of the rainforest was burnt. However, much of the damage was endangered lowland rainforest where less than 10 per cent of its original habitat remained.
  • Queensland has received $1.95 million in federal money for immediate work and $4 million for phase two recovery works.
  • The most-affected fauna species are freshwater crayfish, of which 46 per cent of the habitat was burnt; Fleays frog, of which 12 per cent of its habitat was burnt, and Albert’s Lyrebird, of which 18 per cent of its habitat was burnt.

    “It is almost unprecedented that rainforest will actually burn,” Mr Donatiu said.

    “Normally you will get a fire that will come through the dry sclerophyll systems. It will reach the rainforest and it might trickle in a bit and then go out because of the canopy and the shade and moisture,” he said.

    “But in this case, because of the drought proceeding the fires, because of the leaf fall due to that drought and because of the low soil moisture, the fire did enter rainforest areas.”

    The early on-the-ground restoration work involves removing “transformer weeds” that inhibit natural regeneration. In Mr Barney, choking moth vine is being removed.

    A larvae from an endangered pink underwing moth has been located in Lamington National Park after the 2019-20 bushfires.

    A larvae from an endangered pink underwing moth has been located in Lamington National Park after the 2019-20 bushfires.

    But there have been recent surprises. An endangered spotted quoll, or tiger cat, was seen by a zoologist last week in Lamington National Park. Night-vision cameras are now hurriedly being set up to capture an image.

    One of Mr Donatiu’s colleagues, local ecologist Isaac Wishart found an endangered pink underwing moth larvae – a fruit-piercing moth with a striking “skull cap” to frighten predators that lives high in the rainforest canopy – on Lamington National Park’s eastern flanks.

    “The rainforest is still throwing up these amazing new secrets and this discovery has only come about as a result of the fires,” he said.

    “These fires are a double-edged sword. Although they cause tremendous damage, it does give us these really amazing insights into the richness and diversity of plants and animals in these spaces.”

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