A top-secret grove of 200-million-year-old Wollemi pine trees has been saved from going up in flames as Australia’s bushfire crisis continues.
The New South Wales government confirmed this week that the prehistoric Wollemi pine trees – which have grown since the age of dinosaurs – had survived the Gospers Mountain ‘megablaze’.
The fire, which scorched more than 512,000 hectares northwest of Sydney, was finally brought under control after raging for two-and-a-half months.
An army of conservation experts and firefighters helped save the trees, often described as “living fossils” or “dinosaur trees”.
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) and NSW Rural Fire Service monitored the fire as it approached the pines, placing fire retardant and an irrigation system around each of the trees to soak the fuel load on the forest floor.
The Wollemi pine was presumed extinct and only known in fossils until 1994, when the hidden grove was discovered in a remote canyon deep in the Blue Mountains deep in the Wollemi National Park.
In 2012, an “insurance plantation” of 191 of the pines was planted to secure the trees’ survival, in case disease or fire tore through the remaining 100 trees in the wild.
‘The Wollemi Pine has outlasted the dinosaurs’
Firefighters and conservation scientists pulled out all the stops to protect the pines, NSW environment minister Matt Kean said on Thursday.
“If the fires went through we wanted them to be a cool burn as opposed to a hot burn to give them the best chance of survival,” Mr Kean told ABC Radio.
The fire did go through there, we had a few days of thick smoke so couldn’t tell if they’d been damaged. We waited with bated breath.”
Specialist teams from the NPWS were winched in via helicopter to ensure the trees had the best possible protection.
“There’s a few that are charred, I think we lost two trees. But there are around 200 trees in the population and the remaining 200 survived,” Mr Kean said.
“The Wollemi Pine has outlasted the dinosaurs and thanks to the massive effort of the [NPWS] firefighters, who have just done an incredible job this fire season, they look like they’ve saved these trees.”
Although the location of the pines within the national park is undisclosed, Mr Kean said illegal visitation remains a significant threat to the tree’s survival in the wild due to the risk of trampling and diseases.
Bushfires cause unprecedented loss of biodiversity
As bushfires continue to rage for the fifth straight month, Australia is in the midst of what scientists say is an ecological wipeout of such magnitude it is difficult to comprehend.
More than 10 million hectares has been burnt and more than 1.25 billion animals killed, according to World Wildlife Fund estimates.
With climate change causing what is only the sixth ‘mass extinction’ in Earth’s 4.5 billion year history, Australia bears the ignominious title of having the world’s highest rate of extinction for mammals, with the nation’s biodiversity plummeting in recent decades.
Last week, Victoria’s environment minister Lily D’Ambrosio said the scale of environmental destruction has never been seen before.
“Let’s be clear, these are unprecedented fires and we anticipate that we will see an unprecedented impact on our biodiversity,” Ms D’Ambrosio said.
“Whether that’s threatened species, both flora and fauna, we anticipate that there will be a significant impact.”