After the fires

Walking up the sliver of beach towards Sandy Cape is like stepping into the start of the world. Here, on the northern tip of Fraser Island, known as K’gari, or ‘paradise’, by the Butchulla traditional owners, endangered loggerhead turtles swim in the shallows. Massive wind-sculpted dunes, unsullied by footprints, overlook the ocean. Long dead forests lie interred by sand, stretching their sun-bleached limbs to the sky.

Not far south of here, on 14 October, 2020, a group of mates chatted around a small fire they’d lit in the Duling camp zone on Fraser Island’s (K’gari’s) sweeping eastern coast. One of them poured sand over the dying flames before they retired for the night. They left early the next morning, unaware that an ember had escaped into the surrounding woodland, setting the neighbouring swamp between the treacherous vehicular pass at Ngkala Rocks and Orange Creek alight.

Rangers from the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) monitored the fire as it spread across the island over the weeks that followed, forcing the closure of campgrounds, roads and properties. The fire edged as far north as Sandy Cape, flames licking the base of a Queensland blue gum, as a sea eagle eyrie sat high in its canopy, untouched. On 27 November, 2020, the Queensland Fire and Emergency Service (QFES) took over management of the fire from QPWS. At 5pm that day, they banned barges from bringing in new visitors.

By early December, fire was burning near the west coast’s Kingfisher Bay Resort, which receives around 145,000 guests each year. As the resort’s remaining guests and all but seven staff were evacuated, to be replaced by around 60 firefighters, general manager David Hay described the scene like a war zone, with billowing smoke and water-bombing planes. “After 20 years on the island, I’ve never seen the island like it,” he says.

Rail quells fire

In mid-December, more than 40 millimetres of rain fell, hastening an end to firefighting efforts which had, over the course of the two-month inferno, demanded the deployment of 376 firefighters, 144 vehicles and 30 different kinds of aircraft. By the time QFES deemed the fire contained, and handed back control to QPWS, it had burned 87,000 hectares, or more than half the World Heritage-listed island, although this is likely to be an over-estimate due to the method used, says Grahame Applegate, an Associate Professor in the Tropical Forests and People Research Centre at the University of the Sunshine Coast.

The UNESCO World Heritage Centre was among the parties expressing concern at the scale of the damage. However, against the backdrop of Australia’s devastating 2019-2020 bushfire season, which killed 33 people, destroyed more than 3000 homes, and burned 17 million hectares, there was an sense, though it was mostly unspoken, that things could have been worse on K’gari. No one lost their lives. With the exception of a scorched picnic table at Happy Valley, buildings and infrastructure remained untouched. Most accommodation and campgrounds on the island reopened to visitors in mid-December. Natural attractions like Lake McKenzie and Pile Valley were unaffected.

Yet just as fire burns through vegetation to expose what lies beneath, so too these fires laid bare deeply embedded historical tensions about the broader management of K’gari. Even as the smell of smoke lingered, and a few isolated hot spots smouldered, people began to assess what had been lost, to count the costs, and to search for those responsible.

Just before Christmas, police charged four of the five campers who’d originally sparked the blaze with unlawfully lighting a fire. They later pleaded guilty and were convicted and fined.  But a handful of K’gari residents told me they believed these men had been “scapegoated”. That is, while the campers might have lit the match, they hadn’t contributed to the build-up of fuel loads caused by a lack of prescribed burning, and they weren’t the ones who’d adopted a “let it burn” approach when the fire first took hold.

A review of the K’gari (Fraser Island) bushfire event considered these allegations and other aspects of the bushfire preparedness and response. A spokesperson for the Office of the Inspector-General Emergency Management (IGEM) advised that the final K’gari (Fraser Island) Bushfire Review was provided to the Queensland Government on 31 March 2021.

Two months later, the full 86-page report was released, containing 38 recommendations, including that the Department of Environment and Science, in consultation with stakeholders, develop a prescribed burn program for the island, and review existing firelines (access points), tracks and trails.

The Queensland Government response indicated that all 38 of the report’s recommendations were supported or supported in-principle.

With tourism having replaced sand mining and timber logging as K’gari’s main industry, the two months of bushfires capped by almost three weeks of closures had taken their toll. Martin Simons, CEO of Fraser Coast Tourism & Events Ltd, estimates that the fires cost tourism businesses $3.7 million in revenue.

A Tourism and Events Queensland marketing campaign swung into action to promote the island’s reopening. When I visited for the first time in December, Queenslanders filled the tours and bars of Kingfisher Bay Resort. But the fires had dented visitors confidence, and left them worries about issues including erosion, says Hana Robinson, who owns and operates accommodation and tour company K’gari Fraser Island Adventures. “There were a lot of people calling me up asking, ‘Is the island going to blow away?’” says Robinson.

The calls came at a time when Robinson was grappling with her own emotional response to the fires, which ravaged the land she deeply loves. At the height of the fires, she breathed in smoke, photographed a beach littered with dead and dying insects, and wept. “It was emotionally devastating – there were days I just couldn’t get out of bed. It was just heartbreaking,” she says.

Rebirth and renewal

Within three weeks of the fire, fresh vegetation had begun to resprout amid the charred branches and ash-dusted sand. By March, when I visited K’gari for the second time post-fires, I saw delicate fronds of bracken fern unfurling; bright green shoots erupting from the centre of burnt grass trees; and feathery epicormic growth burst from hidden buds, stretching along the branches and trunks of scorched Banksia aemula.

Elsewhere, fledgling stems and leaves burst from the base of a blackened Eucalyptus racemosa tree thanks to underground lignotubers. Four months after the fires, Applegate recorded Banksia aemula seedlings emerging, after their pods had burst open in response to heat, throwing seeds into sterilised ash beds with little competition for light or from pathogens.

This transformation highlighted that much of the island’s vegetation is pyrophytic, meaning it isn’t just adapted to fire, but needs it to regenerate, says Applegate, who authored Vegetation of Fraser Island/K’gari. He says there is a history of fires on the island, due to both anthropogenic causes and lightning strikes.

As a postgraduate student, Applegate lived on K’gari for two years from 1979. His fascination with the island’s more than 850 species of plants, ranging from towering hoop pine and kauri forests through to low slung sedges and grasses, all growing on a bed of siliceous sand, has never waned. He notes that some species which are adapted to fire are actually becoming inconspicuous in the absence of regular burns. “We’re losing numbers of some species, like Christmas bells, a ground orchid once abundant in the wallum,” he says.

Rhonda Melzer, a QPWS ecologist, says regeneration can occur in fire-adapted communities “within a few days, particularly if you get rain”. In February, Melzer encountered a proliferation of forked sundew in the swamps at Moon Point – pink, insectivorous plants which have small white flowers and are covered in sticky droplets. “Seeing so many things already flowering and resprouting – they’re such remarkable ecosystems and so adapted to their environment,” Melzer says.

Most fire-sensitive ecosystems escaped the brunt of the fires, with only 0.6 per cent of rainforests, and 4 per cent of mangroves impacted, Melzer adds. However, QPWS is keeping a close eye on other areas like foredunes, with their coastal she-oaks. “Unlike some of the other casuarinas, it doesn’t have en masse germination of seeds after fire, and the adults are killed as well, so we expect regeneration there will be very slow,” Melzer says.

Diversity of wildlife

The biodiversity of K’gari also extends to its wildlife, with an estimated 622 different species, including more than 71 mammal species, 379 species of birds and 17 types of frogs. A Queensland Department of Environment & Science spokesperson said acoustic sensors and trail cameras had been deployed to evaluate the status and recovery of native animals, while surveys by rangers had not indicated major impacts on the island’s fauna.

Melzer’s team reported sighting threatened frog species in the sedgelands that had been burnt, crayfish endemic to wallum communities, and a pair of black-breasted buttonquails amid scorched scrubby woodland. QUT’s Professor Jennifer Firn, a plant ecologist who specialises in restoration ecology, says the post-fire flush of new growth combined with recent rains had also attracted more insects to the island. “We need to see fire as that trickling water that goes across the landscape, breathes new life, and starts the successional dynamics again,” she says.

Some questioned the fate of the island’s estimated 200-strong protected dingo population. In January, Cheryl Bryant, from the advocacy organisation Save Fraser Island Dingos Inc, joined a group which searched the island for surviving dingos, or wongari. On that day, they sighted only one, known as Yellow Tag, due to her ear tag which signifies a history or likelihood of problematic behaviour. In its submission to the bushfire review, Save Fraser Island Dingos Inc also claimed to have received reports of dingos sighted in malnourished or otherwise poor condition.

In March, I spotted two dingoes – Yellow Tag at her favoured Eli Creek location and a young untagged male just north of The Pinnacles. But there was evidence of others. Early one morning near Yidney Rocks, we followed dingo tracks so fresh I could visualise their owner patrolling the perimeter of his territory, sniffing the air, and surveying the beach from his vantage point high on the ridge.

There have been at least three dingo attacks since the fires, leading Fraser Coast Mayor George Seymour to warn about the prospect of “another fatality” after nine-year-old Clinton Gage was mauled and killed by dingos in 2001. According to QPWS, the recent spate of incidents is related not to territorial disruption but habituation – dingos losing their natural wariness of humans. After the latest incident in May, the agency released a statement urging visitors “not to feed or interact with dingos, as this can … cause them to become aggressive while seeking food”.

Wildlife researcher Dr Ben Allen, who completed the EcoSure review of the state government’s Fraser Island Dingo Conservation and Risk Management Strategy in 2013, says people’s concerns about the survival of the dingos was probably misplaced. He pointed out that highly mobile generalist predators like dingos “do all right” in the face of fires as compared to other species. He says the fires occurred at a time when the annual cohort of young dingoes naturally began to disperse and establish their own territory. “Skinny and emaciated dingoes at this time are entirely normal and expected,” he adds.

An eye to the future

QUT wildlife lawyer Dr Katie Woolaston says the issue of dingo management on the island had long been contested, and the fires had further inflamed longstanding differences of opinion. “There’s a real lack of communication (between different stakeholders) and that’s based on deeply embedded conflict,” she explains. “Without solving that social conflict, you cannot solve the dingo conflict.”

Professor Patrick Moss, a biogeographer working in the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at The University of Queensland, says that the scale of the K’gari fires, and their timing outside of traditional fire season, was concerning. However, a bigger worry was that, with climate change, they may be a harbinger of things to come. “If it’s a one-off event, I think things can recover, but if this becomes the new normal, then that’s where it’s going to be a major issue,” he says.

Although the island’s post-fire regeneration was encouraging, new vegetation was particularly vulnerable to myrtle rust, which was already “rife” on the island, Moss added. Spread by microscopic airborne spores, myrtle rust can have a “catastrophic” effect on plants in the Myrtaceae family, such as paperbarks and midgen berry. “One of the issues (associated with) killing that vegetation type is that it’s going to increase fuel loads as well,” says Moss. Bare landscapes also boost the odds of invasive weeds and pests becoming established.

The fragile environment faces other existential threats, one of the biggest being mass tourism. There are, remarkably, no authoritative figures on the number of visitors to K’gari each year, but it’s believed to be somewhere between 400,000 to 600,000, and every single one of them churns up an average of one tonne of sand, according to the Fraser Island Defenders Organisation. The use of technology such as Automatic Number Plate Recognition and mobile phone check-in applications to gain a more complete picture of visitor numbers and movement data was another recommendation contained within the K’gari (Fraser Island) Bushfire Review.

University of Queensland fire ecologist Dr Philip Stewart has worked extensively in national parks and says the number of visitors needs to be capped and their activities constrained to preserve the diversity and structure of the environment. “The environmental values that we have are astronomical here,” he says. “And we’re going to lose it very, very quickly if we don’t start to realise that the environment doesn’t owe us anything.”

All in a day’s work

As the flames bore down on Happy Valley, Greg (Nature) Slade had an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu. In January 2020, he’d been the acting manager of a retreat on Kangaroo Island which was razed by catastrophic bushfires. Slade made it out with only his car, and camping gear. The K’gari fire was just getting started when he took up a job at Happy Valley’s Fraser Island Retreat. “It was just a little bit like, ‘Oh my God, again?’ Surely it wasn’t going to happen twice in a year.”

Slade worked with other staff to prepare the resort – gathering up leaves, wetting down lawns, and clearing out gutters. “We didn’t have to do a lot except for spot fire watching on the day,” he says. The K’gari fire was slower moving and less intense than the fire he’d seen on Kangaroo Island, but some international guests still panicked. “Just hearing, ‘It’s going to be okay, don’t worry about it,’ when they can see plummeting smoke and fire coming from the hills … It’s a little bit hard to convince them,” Slade says.

Winston Williams, sector commander of the Happy Valley Rural Fire Brigade, and a firefighter with 50 years’ experience, said three different fire fronts were advancing on the town on December 7, 2020. “The question was which one was going to get to us first,” he says. Williams, with others, had developed a bushfire mitigation and hazard reduction plan after being told 12 months’ earlier that their town was undefendable. They had cleared vegetation, undertaken hazard reduction burns and constructed mulched breaks to mount a successful backburning operation, the latter of which Williams describes as “the saviour of the township” on the day.

When the fire came closer to town, several residents evacuated to the beach for their safety. Yet Williams and about 50 other residents stayed behind, working along QFES, to defend their homes. Amid Australia’s increasingly hotter, drier and more combustible conditions, the question of whether to “stay and defend or leave early” is a fraught one, and authorities have previously expressed frustration when residents in the bushfire’s path resist orders to go.

But QFES Deputy Commissioner Michael Wassing said the Happy Valley case was different – an example of how communities could leverage local knowledge and work effectively with firefighters. “They’d done that preparedness work, they understood shared responsibility, they understood their local environment, and they had a plan around that,” he explains. “They were able to integrate with our incident team and we were able to provide supporting resources. Our business is basically working with community, whether it be before the fire occurs, in terms of prevention, preparedness and mitigation, or in the case of Happy Valley, having community standing next to the firefighters working to protect their homes … I’d like to see that happen more often.”

© 2022 Denise Cullen