The last four months has been devastating for the Australian Environment with bushfires ravaging forests and habitats: from North Queensland rainforests never expected to burn, to the wet Eucalypt forests of East Gippsland. From the scrublands in Western Australia to the unique ecosystems and habitats on Kangaroo Island off the South Australian Coast.
These bushfires have been driven by clear climate factors. A warming in Australia during 2019 of 1.5C, with more frequent extreme heat events, a record deficiency in rainfall (also partly driven by climate factors) and reduced soil moisture increasing the dry ‘fuel load’ in the environment, and a long term increase in Forest Fire Danger Index and fire weather.
Australia is Burning by the numbers (to 8 Jan): Source: France24
- 10.7 million hectares now burnt (8 Jan)
- Over 1 billion wildlife affected (a conservative estimate) Extinction event likely for some species
- 400m tonnes CO2 Emissions (Australia’s annual emissions are 528MT)
- Over 2000 homes destroyed (many more sheds & structures)
- 26 people dead
- Current fires: NSW 129 fires, Vic 40 fires
- Smoke air pollution choking capital cities (Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne) and many regional towns in SE Australia
- $700m in insurance claims so far
Six of Australia’s prominent conservation biology, ecology and fire scientists have authored an article at The Conversation published 9 January explaining “We estimate most of the range and population of between 20 and 100 threatened species will have been burnt. Such species include the long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island’s glossy black-cockatoo and the Spring midge orchid.”
“The continued existence of such species was already tenuous. Their chances of survival are now much lower again.”
Intensity and scale of Bushfires driven by climate change
Australian climate scientist Professor Nerilie Abram from the Australian National University, describes in Scientific American Australia’s Angry Summer: This Is What Climate Change Looks Like in which she says “The catastrophic fires raging across the southern half of the continent are largely the result of rising temperatures”.
Once fires get to a certain strength and intensity they can generate their own weather, including thunder and dry lightning sparking more fires away from the firefront. This is what we saw with the fire at Mallacoota and the fires threatening the South Coast of NSW. Climate factors are also driving the increased incidence of these fires in south east Australia according to recent research. They are much more difficult to fight and put out and dangerous for firefighters, as highlighted by the death of Samuel McPaul in the Green Valley Bushfire near Jingellic in north east Victoria.
Eminent climate Scientist Michael Mann, currently visiting Australia on sabatical, highlighted in an interview with Joe O’Brien on ABC News that these fires are a threshold event, a climate tipping point we are experiencing in real time.
Impact of bushfires on Wildlife and Biodiversity
The bushfire disaster with 6 million hectares burnt and counting, is a climate emergency, and also reveals we have a major extinction crisis.
This is a very partial, quick and incomplete list of Impacts of bushfires this season.
The focus in this list is on Fauna species, but many threatened flora species are also highly affected. The 2 flora species specifically highlighted in this article include: the Wollemi Pine and the Antarctic beech forests.
Probably about 80 percent (my very rough estimate) of the total area burnt is in NSW with 5 million hectares so far. Many of the forests and national parks in the Great Dividing range from the far north coast to the Victorian border have burnt or are burning.
Another 1 million hectares now burnt in Victoria in East Gippsland and north-east Victoria.
Smaller areas burnt in South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania.
Bushfires are also threatening our alpine areas in Victoria and NSW, a very special ecosystem. The fires in all states include sensitive ecosystem areas such as Wet Rainforests in Queensland and northern NSW never expected to burn, Kangaroo Island in South Australia, Cool temperate rainforests in Tasmania, and Eucalypt rainforests in East Gippsland in Victoria, all with a wealth of threatened species.
Sydney University Media release from 3 January by Professor Chris Dickman outlines that an estimated 480 million wildlife is affected by the bushfires just in New South Wales.
That point should be emphasised, the estimate of 480 million is for NSW bushfires only, and clearly states this in the media release.
“The figure includes mammals, birds and reptiles and does not include insects, bats or frogs. The true loss of animal life is likely to be much higher than 480 million.” says the media release highlighting that numbers when all species are included are likely to be much higher.
It also highlights that Australia has one of the highest regional extinction rates over the last 200 years since European settlement. “Some 34 species and subspecies of native mammals have become extinct in Australia over the last 200 years, the highest rate of loss for any region in the world.”
This estimate appears to have been subsequently updated according to a report in Huffington Post which stated that “The number of wildlife estimated to have died in Australia’s bushfire catastrophe has skyrocketed to more than 1 billion.”
The report says that Chris Dickman, an ecologist at the University of Sydney, told HuffPost that his original estimate of 480 million animals “was not only conservative, it was also exclusive to the state of New South Wales and excluded significant groups of wildlife for which they had no population data.”
The Gospers Mountain bushfire has had a large impact on the Blue Mountains, Wollemi and Dharug National Parks west of Sydney.
A report in the Newcastle Herald outlines the bushfire impact on a number of species including brush-tailed rock-wallaby, turtles, tiger quoll and local populations of platypus, according to Australian Reptile Park’s Tim Faulkner.
Other threatened species known to live in the national parks include the squirrel glider, grey-headed flying-fox, grey-crowned babbler, speckled warbler, brown treecreeper, broad-headed snake, black-chinned honeyeater, masked owl, barking owl, turquoise parrot, east-coast freetail-bat, black bittern and brush-tailed phascogale.
The Blue mountains are also the “final stronghold” of a critically endangered bird, the regent honeyeater. Just 250 to 400 of these striking black-and-yellow nectar feeders remain, and an estimated 80% of breeding pairs nest in the Greater Blue Mountains according to a report in the Australian Association for Advancement of Science website.
Kellie Leigh, a researcher and the executive director of not-for-profit conservation organisation Science for Wildlife, estimated two-thirds of the Wollemi-Hawkesbury koala population has been lost in the bushfires, in a report in The Age on January 9.
Wollemi Pine (Wollemi National Park NSW)
There are less than 100 plants of the Wollemi Pine in the wild in four small patches at a secret location in the Blue Mountains. The species was only discovered in 1994. The tree has since been propagated and can be bought at selected nurseries. But the bushfire threatens its existence as part of an ecological habitat. At least 3 patches of the tree were thought to have been burnt in the Gospers Mountain Fire. The state of the 4th patch is currently unknown. Latest info from David Shoebridge Dec 26.
Some background from Instagram:
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Wollemi Pine. This species was only discovered in 1994, found wild in a few wet remote gullies of the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney in the Wollemi National Park. The Gospers Mountain mega fire has passed through the area where about 250 plants exist. Sprinklers were provided and fire retardant was sprayed for protection, but it is feared these plants may still be all lost. Their lineage in the wild goes back 110 million years, and while adult trees may be able to survive cool burns, the intensity of the current bushfire may end their lineage and connection with their habitat and ecosystem. The species may survive, thanks to a seedling program established in 2005 with trees in the ACT and sold to people like my brother. But if they do not survive in their natural habitat, or can be restored to their natural environment, they are functionally extinct. These #bushfires are happening at 1 degree Celsius of warming. The Morrison Government have no substantive climate and energy policy, acted to undermine the #parisagreement using Kyoto carryover credits (hit air) at #cop25 in Madrid, and have us on the path of 3 degrees or more of warming by 2100. We have Catastrophic fire conditions now, can you imagine the intensity and frequency of bushfires with 2C or 3C of #globalgeating? This is a #climatecrisis, a #climateemergency that is already causing species extinctions. #wollemipine #extinction #nswbushfires #bushfires #australiaburns #morrisonfires @scottmorrisonmp @peterkhalilmp @kateauty @theclimatecouncil
Dec 23 Radio report on ABC News explains the fears for this species of pine tree that has a genetic inheritence going back 90 million years.
In the Wollemi National Park 37 species are currently listed as Endangered (15 species) or Vulnerable (22 species), with another 50 species considered nationally rare. This 2008 study (PDF) by Stephen A.J. Bell outlines the Rare or threatened vascular plant species of Wollemi National Park, central eastern New South Wales.
Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley estimates up to 8,400 koalas may have perished in the bushfires on the mid north coast of New South Wales during November to late December. This may be up to 30 per cent of the local koala population, according to a Guardian report.
A report in the Age highlights Threatened species in East Gippsland affected by the Victorian fires include: the greater glider, the long-footed potoroo, the brush-tailed rock-wallaby, the spotted-tail quoll, the yellow-bellied glider and the diamond python.
New protected areas in the East Gippsland forests were only announced by the Labor State government in November, and most of these protected areas have substantially been burnt out in the fires that ravaged the area in late December and early January 2020.
According to the Statewide Integrated Flora and Fauna Teams website there are in East Gippsland shire 91 species of threatened birds; 31 species of threatened mammals; 18 species of threatened fish; 12 species of threatened reptiles; 12 species of threatened amphibians; 9 species of threatened invertebrates. Many of these populations would be heavily impacted by the bushfires, especially thiose species located in forest areas that have burnt.
In South Australia a third of Kangaroo Island has been subsumed in a fiery inferno wiping out much sensitive ecosystems. The habitat of the endangered southern brown bandicoot has been obliterated by fire. It is also feared the Kangaroo Island dunnart habitat was totally destroyed and the species may very well have been incinerated, such was its limited range.
The nests of glossy black-cockatoo were also destroyed, but even more alarming is that their primary food source has been substantially destroyed. These birds have a highly specialised diet, the seeds of the drooping sheoak (Allocasuarina verticillata). These trees once covered the hills of the Fleurieu Peninsula, southern Mt Lofty Ranges and Eyre Peninsula, but are now found mainly on Kangaroo Island. The birds that escaped the fire through flight may suffer starvation with the destruction of many of these trees.
The green carpenter bee, now find primarily on King Island, is thought to be extinct on the South Australian mainland and in Victoria, is at heavy risk of having nesting sites substantially obliterated by the extent of fires on the Island’s western end.
Kangaroo Island population of 50,000 Koalas is thought to have halved with an estimated 25,000 koalas killed by the fires, according to a report in the Guardian. This population of Koalas, that was introduced to the island from the mainland, is one of the few populations which are chlamydia free.
There are fears for bushfires destroying habitat of endangered mountain pygmy possum and the southern corroboree frog in Kosciusko National Park and Victorian alpine areas. This endangered possum is already under threat due to the dramatic drop in Bogong moths migrating to alpine areaa in summer moths, an important food source for pygmy possums.
The Kosciuszko National Park is home to at least 23 threatened native plant species, 11 native animal species, 5 ecological communities, according to the Reclaim Kosci campaign to reduce feral horses in the park and stop the damage they do to alpine ecosystems.
According to a report, some iconic Alpine Ash forests of Kosciuszko have experienced four fires in 20 or 30 years, reducing a predominently wet forest ecosystem, rich in wildlife biodiversity into a dry scrub far more flammable than the original forest. This ecosystem collapse is all but impossible to reverse, according to research.
The Western Ground Parrot continues to dodge Extinction for the moment, but unless relocation and breeding funds are found this species is at high risk. Some lucky weather spared important habitat in Cape Arid National Park near Israelite Bay from burning in the last western ground parrot refuge from the Cape Arid bushfire in December, reports the Kalgoolie Miner.
Between Boxing Day and New year bushfires also destroyed 40,000 hectares in the Stirling Ranges National Park 400 km south east of Perth. The Stirling ranges is reknowned for the threatened montane heath and thicket ecosystem, with 1,500 species of flora and at least 87 plant species found no where else on Earth. Half of the National Park was burnt.
The Approved Conservation Advice for Eastern Stirling Range Montane Heath and Thicket (PDF)(under EPBC Act) lists the following threatened species:
“At least thirteen flora species listed as threatened under the EPBC Act occur in the ecological community – Andersonia axilliflora (giant andersonia), Darwinia collina (yellow mountain bell), Darwinia squarrosa (fringed mountain bell, pink mountain bell), Banksia montana (Stirling Range dryandra) and Persoonia micranthera (small-flowered snottygobble) (all endemic to the ecological community), Banksia brownii (Brown’s banksia, feather-leaved banksia), Darwinia nubigena (Success bell, red mountain bell), Daviesia obovata (paddle-leaf daviesia), Deyeuxia drummondii, (Drummond’s grass), Lambertia fairallii (Fairall’s honeysuckle), Leucopogon gnaphalioides (Stirling Range beard heath), Sphenotoma drummondii (mountain paper-heath) and Xyris exilis (Stirling Range xyris). A further statelisted threatened plant species, Latrobea colophona, also occurs in the ecological community.
“At least one nationally threatened fauna species is known to occur in the ecological
community – Setonix brachyurus (quokka). Other nationally threatened fauna such as
Dasyurus geoffroii (chuditch, western quoll), Calyptorhynchus latirostris (Carnaby’s
cockatoo) and C. banksii naso (forest red-tailed black-cockatoo) are known to occur in the Stirling Range National Park and they may use the ecological community as habitat.”
Chief executive of Gondwana Link, a private conservation enterprise, Keith Bradby described the park in an ABC news report as “one of the most precious jewels of the region” but said frequent fires in the park had put species under a lot of stress.
Most people can relate to the quokkas on Rottnest Island. The Stirling Ranges hostes one of the few remaining mainland colonies of Quokkas. “It’s one of the few mainland populations of quokkas left, and they were in that part of the park,” said Bradby, “Whether they’re going to rebound I can’t tell.
“And the Montaigne thickets are already damaged because of dieback. Whether they’re on a downhill trajectory or whether we’ve terminated it — we don’t know.” says Keith Bradby.
Back to back (short interval) fire seasons does not augur well for the biodiversity of the area.
Department of Biodiversity and Conservation (DBCA) south coast regional manager Greg Mair said fires had burned in the park on a similar scale in 1991, 2000 and 2018, but he highlighted that the interval between fires was key for many species survival.
“Some of these species require really long intervals before they can produce viable seed and if you have too frequent a fire that starts to reduce the seeding capacity and the reproductive capacity of the plant.” said Mair.
The Australian Association for Advancement of Science reports that much of the known range in Queensland of the silver-headed antechinus “has been obliterated by fires” in the Bulburin National Park. It is estimated just a few hundred individuals remain of this carnivorous marsupial mouse like species, and Bulburin National Park has the largest of the three known populations. Individuals might take refuge in rock crevices to survive the fire, but only to emerge to habitat without shelter or food, according to Diana Fisher, a mammal ecologist at the University of New England in Armidale.
“If they lose all of their leaf litter and ground cover, then they’re not going to persist,” Fisher says, and also added that in the past antechinus from other areas might have repopulated vacated territories but habitat fragmentation now makes that nearly impossible.
The Bulburin National Park also harbors an endangered native macadamia species reduced to fewer than 150 remaining trees. According to Fisher, Satellite images suggest fire may have reached all three parts of the park that have the trees. There are 14 Rare or threatened animals of Bulburin National Park.
According to a report by ABC News on 6 December, Bushfires devastated rare and enchanting wildlife as ‘permanently wet’ forests burn for first time, talking about bushfires burning rainforests along the spine of the Great Dividing Range, between the Hunter River and southern Queensland. These forests very rarely see bushfire, are considered normally far too wet to burn. They harbour a wealth of flora and fauna some of which is found no where else. Species include The Albert’s Lyre Bird, Rufous Scrub Bird, the Log Runner, the Tree Creeper, the Cat Bird, and the pouched frog.
In particular the northern long-nosed potoroos in these rainforests plays a unique role in these ecosystems. Australia has the world’s greatest diversity of trufflesfound in the roots of our eucalypts. The fungi that produce the truffles keep the eucalypts healthy. The potoroos eat the truffles, and spread the fungi through their poo. “They are a keystone species, keeping the whole landscape together and healthy,” says Mark Graham, a fire specialist with the Nature Conservation Council.
“We are seeing fire going into these areas where fire is simply not meant to go. The fauna in these landscapes requires permanently wet conditions, and many of the fauna species in these landscapes simply have no tolerance to fire,” Mr Graham says.
Mark Graham from the Nature Conservation Council describes the Pouched frog and the bushfire threat in this blog post of an audio interview in November 2019:
“The pouched frog is 2 cm long maximum and it lives in dense leaf litter, permanently wet leaf litter in these ancient rain forests between the Dorrigo Plateau and south east Queensland. Last week the area to the west of Byron Bay, the Nightcap Range National Park, another Gondwanan World Heritage Area – a significant amount of that reserve burnt in the fires last week and in particular the Terania creek basin, which is an area known to support some of the biggest populations of this frog in the world, was burned extensively. Now, they’re tiny, they’re 2 centimeters. They’re a very delicate and moist creature, and they simply have no tolerance for fire. Also some of the southernmost populations of the pouch frog near the Dorrigo area have recently burnt through. Now the globally unique and amazing thing of the pouch frog, also called the marsupial frog is its unique reproductive strategy. The female frog lays quite advanced eggs below leaves and rocks in these permanently wet leaf litter, they develop slightly and then the male frog which has a pouch on either side of his abdomen, projects himself or squeezes himself against those early developing tadpoles, those embryos and they enter these pouches in his belly. Those pouches seal over, then some time later, 2 or more months later these miniscule pouch frogs emerge essentially as developed adults bursting out of these amazing little pouches.”
The World Heritage Centre has raised questions in November about the bushfire damage to the “Gondwana Rainforests of Australia” along the Great Dividing Range of Australia. These forests are part of Australia’s world heritage listing, as the forests date back 180 million years to the separation of the Gondwana supercontinent.
The Antarctic Beech forests are a notable feature of the cool temperate rainforests. The World Heritage listing includes the largest areas of subtropical rainforest on the planet, some warm temperate rainforest and nearly all the world’s Antarctic beech cool temperate rainforest. There are about 40 separate reserves, between Newcastle and Brisbane, with the rainforest reserves surrounded by fire-prone eucalypt forest and farms according to the report in the Guardian.
In October 2018 the Australian world heritage advisory committee warned the then environment minister, Melissa Price, that climate change had significant implications for world heritage properties.
Australian Conservation Foundation’s CEO, Kelly O’Shanassy said “Many of these forests are supposed to be too wet to burn, but local and global inaction on climate change is supercharging the length, intensity and range of bushfire seasons,” she said. “Australia must take stronger domestic action and leverage that into pushing for stronger global action so we do not lose our world heritage sites forever,”
In late September we saw bushfires destroy Binna Burra lodge in the Lamington National Park rainforest in southern Queensland, just to the west of the Gold Coast. The area is home to more than 200 rare and threatened plant and animal species.
Queensland Herbarium ecologist Dr Rod Fensham said “Rainforest is fire retardant. It has this shady canopy that supresses all the ground fuel, it has a cool moist microclimate, it breaks the wind, it has every trick in the book to supress fire, but in extreme conditions it can burn.”
The bushfires in this National Park startedn on private land in drier eucalypt forest. They were exacerbated by unusually hot dry winds that swept across much of Queensland and New South Wales.
“We’ve never experienced fire conditions like that in September, let alone in the first week of September,” retired NSW Fire and Rescue Commissioner Greg Mullins said. “The weather conditions that we experienced were off the scale.” in a report by ABC News.
The list of rare and threatened species for Lamington National park includes 29 species composed of 9 mammals, 11 birds, 3 reptiles, 4 amphibians, one fish and one insect.
27 December 2019 – Helping our native animals recover from fires
10 December 2019 – $3 million for Koala hospitals
20 November 2019 Helping our wildlife recover from bushfires
I’ll let others judge if our Federal Environment Minister has been doing her job with regards advocacy for wildlife, habitat and environment given the 3 media releases above.
Terri Butler, Labor’s shadow environment and water spokeperson has called for a National environment sudit post the bushfires.
“The Morrison Government should convene a meeting of state and territory environment ministers and commence an Australian Natural Asset Audit, amid estimates that up to one billion animals have perished in the nation’s bushfire disaster.” says the statement.
“The Government must also guarantee continued funding for the nation’s Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre, which will cease to exist from July next year because it does not conform to the Government’s rewritten guidelines for CRCs, which favour commercial research.”
She framed her statement that “Australians love the bush. Many of us live in the bush and our precious wildlife is deeply ingrained in Australian sense of identity.”
She called for this audit by “land management specialists and scientists to assess the scale of this ecological disaster and advise governments on a national approach to recovery efforts.”
Environment Minister Sussan Ley tweeted at about 9pm that “our national team are working hard, both to support wildlife rescue efforts and to map and plan for future habitat regeneraton. Our Bushfire Recovery Agency will have an important role in environmental restoration.”
There has been no comitment given of funds for environmental restoration and species recovery plans so far, given the extent of the environmental disaster.
The Threatened Species Commissioner, Dr Sally Box, released released a short statement on Facebook this afternoon:
“Millions of hectares of habitat has been impacted by fire and hundreds of millions of native plants and animals are estimated to have been affected.
“Planning is already underway, and we are working on a coordinated national response to help restore the local environment and impacted wildlife.” said the statement in part.
The Australian Army has deployed veterinarians as part of the Army reserve to Kangaroo Island to assist with and support injured wildlife. The tweet said:
“Our vets are one of the many reservists who have been deployed as part of the ADF Reserve Call Out. Army Vets & members of 9th Brigade have been deployed to Kangaroo Island. One of their many tasks is to assist support injured wildlife. #OpBushfireAssist #GoodSoldiering”