It was November 25. Government agencies involved in the response had taken decisive action to bar any new arrivals on the world’s largest sand island, about 250 kilometres north of Brisbane, more than six weeks after what is alleged to have been an illegal and poorly extinguished camp fire first began growing into three blazes which have now scorched about 82,000 hectares.
That delay has sparked calls for an independent inquiry by the state LNP Opposition, businesses and residents after last summer’s devastating blazes – met by Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk’s ordering of a high-level review this week – and fanned fears about a further blow to regional tourism.
However, underpinning this is the threat posed to the island’s internationally significant ancient coastal dune-based rainforests and the many rare and threatened species which call them home.
“We have a duty of care,” said Rainbow Beach Commerce and Tourism Association president Nigel Worthington, an 18-year business owner on the island.
The UNESCO World Heritage Committee listed K’gari – as it is known by its Butchulla traditional owners – in 1992 as an “outstanding example” of ongoing natural processes, featuring the world’s largest unconfined sand-island aquifer and half of its perched freshwater dune lakes.
Like most of the Australian continent, large parts of the island are both fire adapted and reliant.
Others such as the older-growth rainforests around the Valley of the Giants are less so, and where the eyes of ecologists, fire and parks authorities are keenly fixed.
The remote nature and tall, dense canopy has made it difficult for even waterbombing aircraft.
Working with the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation, efforts have been able to focus on a number of culturally significant sites.
Fire had entered the valley at “low intensity” and was expected to emerge to the east at a “later stage”, QFES regional operations controller Superintendent John Pappas said.
“We are doing what we can to minimise impacts in that area.”
Professor Patrick Moss, an ecologist with the University of Queensland, said while the fire was a “fairly unique” event there was evidence of large-scale bushfires on the island over the past 35,000 years. But the potential for “long-term” damage to the rainforest areas and risk of such events becoming more common was a major concern.
Cooler fuel-reducing burns are becoming tougher in the closing window provided by climate change. A conservation outlook published by the World Heritage Convention’s official advisory body warned this could also boost the frequency of higher-intensity fires.
Phillip Stewart, a University of Queensland fire ecologist with 27 years experience managing fire in national parks, said even those of lower intensity could damage vegetation enough to cause a “ripple effect” throughout K’gari’s closed ecosystem.
The island’s dingo population – thought to be the purest in the country due to its isolation from domestic and feral dogs – is also feared to be at risk due to fighting between groups driven together by a loss of habitat.
“We don’t know if they will recover,” Save Fraser Island Dingoes spokeswoman Cheryl Bryant said of the potential losses among a generation of pups.
An almost 100-strong ground force made up of QFES, Queensland Parks and Wildlife and Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation personnel, with support from 17 aircraft, had managed to effectively hold the fires over the past two days and sure up containment lines until good rain – perhaps with storms expected Tuesday – can lend a hand.
Deteriorating conditions building to northerly gusts of 50km/h early next week would then test them again, Mr Pappas said.
“Whilst that does push the fire away from Kingfisher Resort, there’s potential for it to push it closer to Happy Valley.”
In the car back to her Hervey Bay home from a trip south to the Gold Coast instead, where smoke from the island fires still found her, Ms Neville recalled first seeing the fire from the charter boat in mid-October, then watching it split and spread as the days dragged on.
“It’s going to take out a lot of things,” she said. “Who knows what’s going to happen.”
Matt Dennien is a reporter with Brisbane Times.