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K’gari (Fraser Island) – the fire and the aftermath

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On 14 October, campers in the Ngkala Rocks vicinity left an unextinguished campfire at their campsite in the North of the Island. A raging South Easter was blowing. The coals reignited, fanned by the wind, and the fire spread into the adjacent vegetation. That was the start of the calamity.

Strong winds drove the fire across the island and within a day and a half, it had reached the Western side of the island. By the time it was drawn to the attention of QPWS, it had extended well inland. As it proceeded, it left behind numerous fires burning in inaccessible wilderness country.

North of Happy Valley – top of steep sand dune almost six weeks after fire and good rain. This is scorched earth. The earth is sterilised. Very hot fire moved up the steep slopes of this dune, probably driven by strong wind. There is no regrowth of trees or shrubs. No grass, ferns or seedlings of any kind are emerging. (Photo: Peter Shooter).

The wind then swung to the North-North West. It blew the fire south, breaking into several fronts and burning over half the island (87,000Ha). It was eventually controlled by a huge fire fighting effort involving 90+ firefighters, 17 water-bombing aircraft (fixed-wing and chopper), and finally the advent of rain on 8 December.

During these eight weeks, the wind blew from every conceivable direction ranging from gale force to perfectly calm. The fires were very variable, and the resultant impact on the landscape was equally variable. At times the fires were extremely hot, totally engulfing the vegetation inflicting lasting damage. In contrast, at other times, it just crept along the surface, burning the accumulated material but not extending into the canopy of trees and shrubs.

K’gari’s terrain is extremely varied, ranging from high steep dunes to large areas of undulating country. Similarly, the vegetation types are incredibly varied, ranging from majestic complex rainforests, featuring gigantic satinay and other trees, to sclerophyll forests containing a range of tree species including Eucalypts, Banksias, Casuarinas and many more. Then there are a range of heathland types and importantly wetlands including the incredible patterned fens. Each of these communities reacts differently to fire, adding to the complexity of this fire’s impact.

Some of these plant communities have evolved to be fire tolerant and even benefit from periodic burns. This is the case for the heathlands and some sclerophyll ecosystems, while the rainforests do not tolerate fire. All this complexity means the impact of the fire was very variable. Some areas can be expected to recover quite well while others are severely damaged.

Of greatest concern, the fire would engulf rainforests (as happened at Binna Burra last year).  This did not happen. In some places, the fire got into wet sclerophyll forests surrounding the rainforest areas but was restricted to the forest floor and did not extend into the canopy. This was excellent news.

Most of the fire-fighting effort was concentrated on saving lives and property at The Cathedrals, Kingfisher Bay Resort and Happy Valley. This saved the day for these places and was an excellent result. However, the damage to the natural environment is considerable, and in some places, the scars and impacts from the fire will be long lasting.

On-island inspections are currently being undertaken by several organisations, including the Butchulla Aboriginal Corporation RNTBC, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, and Fraser Island Defenders Organisation (FIDO). FIDO President, Peter Shooter, provides his insights below:

FIDO has done two post-fire inspections of the island. The impact of the fire is very varied, and there are many unburnt patches throughout the area. These provide refuge for both plants and animals as the slow recovery occurs.

Some of the worst damage is on steep dunes where the fire, driven by strong winds raged up the slopes, creating very hot burns that burnt most plants to the ground and sterilised the soil. Where the burn was cooler, blady grass and bracken ferns have come back prolifically, shooting from underground stems, as have a range of other plants.

Some of the forests, especially around Happy Valley, experienced very hot burns. Some species, notably Scribbly Gums (Eucalyptus racemose) and Moreton Bay Ash (Corymbia tessellaris) appear to have died over extensive areas. Others like Blue gums (Eucalyptus tereticornus) are reshooting, with Swamp turpentine (Lophostemon suaveolens) has bounced back with great vigour. It is covered in shoots and is flowering on the new growth.

The iconic Pandanus trees of K’gari have suffered dramatically of recent years from the introduced leafhopper (Jamella australiae). They took another hit where fires went through coastal dunes. Many Pandanus are reshooting, but given the population was so weakened by the leafhopper, they have a real struggle ahead. Banksias have expressed a varying response. Of the dominant species, the common Coastal Banksia (Banksia integrifolia) has suffered badly. Most appear dead in burnt areas, while the Swamp Banksia (Banksia robor) has regrown from their roots and the tree Banksias (Banksia aemula and Banksia serrata) that dominate wallum forests the West of the island are already shooting well from their stems.

There is considerable, albeit well-placed community concern about the impact of the fire on wildlife.

Koalas attract the vast majority of publicity in the aftermath of forest fires, but K’gari does not have koalas. There are a small number of Eastern grey kangaroos and some swamp wallabies. It is expected that these larger animals, along with the iconic K’gari Wongari (dingos), will have avoided the fires. Not so the smaller or slower moving creatures in the burnt areas.

It can be expected that the smaller marsupials and rodents, reptiles and some small birds will have suffered, but this is very hard to assess. Concern has been expressed about the loss of habitat of two threatened bird species, the ground parrot and the black-breasted button quail, both ground dwellers. Large areas of habitat were destroyed both in this fire, and the earlier 2019 fire (affecting 1350Ha at the south of the island).

The likelihood of injured smaller animals being found is very low. We may never know the immediate extent of the impact.

We inspected the remarkable Patterned Fens north of the Wathumba Road. The vegetation was burnt to the ground. It is coming back vigorously, as the plants grow in high water holding peat soils. The primary large plant species, Swamp Banksia (Banksia robor), Woolly Teatree (Leptospernum leavigatum), and Ghania are regrowing vigorously from the roots.

The big questions

This fire event on K’gari is unprecedented in both duration and magnitude. It occurred at the time of an extended and arid period. It begs the question – “Was this abnormal dryness just an example of normal cyclical climate variation? Or is it just another example of a much greater phenomenon that has seen many unprecedented damaging fires in protected areas and across the country of recent times? Has this been influenced by man-induced climate change?”

The K’gari fire makes this the seventh World Heritage property in Australia affected by fire in the last year. They include:

  • Gondwana Rainforests here in Qld (including Binna Burra) and over the border in NSW, which were 54% burnt according to the 2020 Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements,
  • Greater Blue Mountains area west of Sydney, which was 82% burnt,
  • Budj Bim Cultural landscape in Victoria, and
  • Stirling Range National Park in West Australia.
  • Five Ramsar Wetlands were also impacted by fires last year.

In his later years, the late John Sinclair AO examined the rainfall records over recent decades from Double Island Point. They pointed to a significant decrease in annual rainfall over that period.

Is this an indication that K’gari is drying? Will this result in increased fire activity on K’gari into the future? If so, what impact will this have on the island’s vegetation and wildlife? What impact will it have on the famous perched lakes of K’gari?

These questions can only be answered with a concerted and comprehensive research effort.

K’gari is World Heritage-listed. The Federal and State Governments need to take their commitment to the World Heritage Estate seriously, with resources urgently needed to fund both this research and response, providing effective fire control measures for K’gari.

Article contributed by Peter Shooter, Fraser Island Defenders Organisation

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