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15 January 2020updated 08 Apr 2020 9:45pm

What we lost in the fire

Around a billion animals have been impacted by Australia’s bushfires. It’s a catastrophe in which more endangered species will be pushed closer to the brink of extinction. 

By Tim Flannery

Australia’s ongoing bushfire crisis is unprecedented. It is having an enormous impact on biodiversity, and there is no doubt that climate change is making the fires more severe. Last year was Australia’s hottest and driest ever – part of a decades-long trend in which the country has become hotter and drier. With natural factors alone, just one year in 350 would be as hot as 2019 was. But add the warming of the greenhouse gases, and the figure drops to one in eight. With the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere rising, the chances of severe heat must become even greater.

Climate change deniers argue that bushfire has always been part of the Australian environment. It is true that Australia is an exceptionally fire-prone continent, but today’s bushfires are nothing like the bushfires of decades past. I know about the behaviour of fires through personal experience. In 1994 I lost a house to bushfire in Sydney’s southern suburbs, and successfully defended another in 2002 to Sydney’s north. And during the 1980s I made a documentary on bushfire which involved visiting a koala rescue centre near Port Macquarie on the New South Wales central coast. Koalas are tough creatures that can survive horrific injuries, and what I saw there broke my heart. Koalas young and old, with claws, hands and faces burned away, but still alive. The carers had the terrible job of trying to determine which should be treated, and which euthanised.

Koalas have experienced bushfires for millions of years, but like that bushfire in the 1980s that inflicted such pain, the fires of years past have been of limited scale or frequency. The new climate-fuelled megafires spreading across Australia today are of such scale and ferocity that they threaten not just individuals but entire species.

Due to its varied soils and geological history, Australia has many species that occur only in tiny areas and are vulnerable to extinction by fire. Gilbert’s potoroo is a rabbit-sized member of the kangaroo family and one of the world’s rarest mammals. It was thought to be extinct for nearly 130 years before the discovery, in 1994, of a small population in a national park near Albany in south-western Australia. Gilbert’s potoroo occurs within patches of dense vegetation that has not burned for at least 50 years, which it needs for the fungi it feeds on and for shelter. When in 2015 a fire burned through more than 90 per cent of its habitat, few survivors could be found. Were it not for the fact a small number had been translocated to an offshore island in 2005, Gilbert’s potoroo may well have become extinct.

Species such as Gilbert’s potoroo are in the front line of the extinction crisis, and megafires threaten to carry them away en masse. But Australia’s history shows that even more widely distributed and abundant species are also at risk.

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Central Australia was arguably the first region of the country to be hit by a change in fire regimes (the pattern of wildfires). It was once home to a large and varied mammal fauna, including rat-kangaroos, bandicoots and native rodents. Almost all medium-sized mammals are now extinct or restricted to offshore islands, and it is thought that changes in fire regime between around 1930 and 1960 played a key role in their extinctions.

Aboriginal people had long burned the inland in a mosaic to create patches of freshly burned, regrowing areas that provided the medium-sized mammals with food, adjacent to long, unburned patches that provided shelter. When the Aboriginal people were dispossessed, huge wildfires raged through the inland, some large enough to burn through three states – Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland.

An ill wind: a house burns near Lake Conjola, New South Wales, on New Year’s Eve  

In the vast, charred landscape that resulted, the medium-sized mammals could neither find sufficient shelter nor migrate outside the burned zone. Food and cover were hard to find, and predators such as the fox and cat, introduced by British settlers in the 19th century, cleaned up any survivors. The result was the extinction of around 10 per cent of Australia’s total mammal fauna.

In the late 20th century the Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory endured a similar experience. Surveys by zoologists of Kakadu National Park reveal that over the past few decades its medium-sized mammals such as tree-rats and quolls have vanished. Again, changes in fire regime and feral cats are suspected.

Today, as bushfires of unprecedented scale burn through the great forests of Australia’s south-east, biologists are trying to assess the likely damage. By some estimates, around a billion animals have been impacted by the fires. As many areas will remain inaccessible until trails are cleared and made safe, we will not know the full extent of the damage for many months. But already indications of the impact on the more obvious species are coming through. Around Port Macquarie, as many as a third of the koalas have probably perished, and on Kangaroo Island has likely lost more than half its population of koalas.

Among the species I’m most concerned about is the Wollemi Pine, which can grow to 40m and which has an ancient lineage that has led it to be described as a living vegetable dinosaur. Four tiny groves exist deep in the Wollemi wilderness, which has been burning for months; there are fears that three of its four groves may be at risk. With months still to go in this fire season, the pine and the dozens of other plant species around Sydney that exist in tiny patches will be in danger of extinction until the weather changes.

The impact of the 2019-20 bushfires will be with Australians for many years. As ash from the fires washes away, waterways can become poisoned, threatening aquatic life. And as feral cats and foxes discover the bonanza awaiting them on the fire grounds – in the form of native species left without food and shelter – already stressed species will be pushed closer to the brink.

There is much that can be done, even at this stage, to prevent extinctions. Affected individuals need to be cared for, and large efforts must be made to eliminate cats and foxes, and to protect remnant, unburned habitat. Looking forward, it is clear that as greenhouse gases increase, so will fire danger. Australia ranks at the bottom of the ladder in terms of its climate policy, according to the Climate Change Performance Index, with greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels rising year after year. I find it inexcusable that sun- and wind-rich Australia still relies on coal burning for 60 per cent of its electricity, while Britain has cut its dependence on coal to 3 per cent.

There is no sign that the Australian government is willing to introduce new policies to cut emissions drastically. Too many politicians are too close to the fossil fuel industries, and there’s too much money to be made. As Australians realise that today’s greenhouse gas emissions are fuelling tomorrow’s fires, I hope that a government pledging to take aggressive action will finally be elected. 

Tim Flannery is an Australian zoologist and environmentalist. His books include “The Weather Makers: Our Changing Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth” (Penguin)

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This article appears in the 15 Jan 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Why the left keeps losing