DAILAN PUGH. A Fiery Future

Dec 5, 2019

Hundreds of ancient Brush Box and other rainforest trees, many over a thousand years old, have been felled in the head of Terania Creek, their bases eaten out by fire. While the community stepped up to stop the loggers 40 years ago, this time nothing could stop the assault initiated by human-induced climate change.

In August 1979, at Terania Creek north of Lismore in northern NSW, the local community staged the first forest blockade in the western world to stop logging of an intact stand of rainforest. Three years later the Wran Government made its historic Rainforest Decision to protect 120,000 ha of forests. We thought this rainforest would be protected for all time.

In early November fire swept into the basin at the head of Terania Creek, consuming ferns, desiccating shrubs and cooking thousands of Bangalow Palms. Towards the valley floor the remnant moisture slowed the fire’s assault, though the fire ate at the trees’ bases, toppling immense trees that smashed through the rainforest canopy, spreading the devastation. Three weeks later fallen veterans were still smouldering as fire trickled through the leaf litter deep in the rainforest.

The last time fire burnt into the heart of this rainforest was around 1,100 years ago. Even the adjoining eucalypt forests only burnt 6 times in the past 1,700 years. Now we have so fundamentally altered the climate that a regime change is occurring and such events will happen with increasing frequency.

From August to November this year the Rural Fire Service (RFS) mapped 1.7 million hectares of north-east NSW, from the Hunter River to the Queensland border and west onto the tablelands, as being burnt in wildfires. So far 958,000 ha of public lands and 752,000 of private lands have been affected.

The scale is already massive, encompassing 20% of the land area, and 32% of remnant native vegetation, and at the time of writing the fires are expected to continue for months.

The fires are coming on top of a record dry, compounding each others impacts.

The bush is so dry that fire is burning through the moist areas, the gullies and rainforests, that we could rely upon in the past to stop fire’s spread. These are also the refugia that so many of our species depend upon in hard times. The RFS mapping encompasses 120,000 ha of rainforests, while not all this will have burnt, as shown at Terania Creek a lot has.

The big old trees are irreplaceable, the eucalypts may live for 300-500 years, or more, and the Brush Box at Terania Creek have been aged at over 1,340 years old. The older they get the more essential nesting/denning hollows, nectar, browse and other resources they provide for a multitude of species.

Most old trees have been lost through clearing, ringbarking and logging. Now the death of the survivors is being hastened by drought, and in huge numbers as successive fires eat away at their bases. They are also routinely bulldozed and cut down to control fires.

Over half our remnant oldgrowth forest has been burnt this year. Hundreds of thousands of the oldest remaining trees have perished. The loss of so many ancient veterans is tragic.

As exemplified by Koalas, numerous species have been hit hard. The fires have burnt out 23% of the high quality Koala habitat identified in north-east NSW, including a third of that on public lands. Only small refugia have survived within the burnt areas, and the Koalas are under immense stress in these.

Though the situation is more dire than indicated, as much of the modelled high quality habitat has been degraded by intensive logging.

Now some of the most significant remaining populations have been hit hard by the fires, including some of our largest Koala colonies on the Richmond lowlands, Dorrigo Plateau and around Lake Innes. Within the burnt areas most leaves on the feed trees have been burnt, scorched or dropped, leaving surviving Koalas with little to eat. It is still unknown how many Koalas survived, where they have fled to, or how long it will take for their trees to regenerate.

While the rednecks are quick to blame national parks for fires, parks only represent 36% of the burnt area, with 44% on private lands, and most of the ignitions are likely from humans. Given that logging dries forests, creates fuel and increases the likelihood of canopy fires it is the bigger threat.

There is a belief that we need to burn forests more frequently to reduce fire threat, though it only takes 2-4 years for leaf litter to build up, and in extreme events prescribed burning does little to stop the spread of fire. It is telling that 151,000 ha of the area burnt this year has been burnt in either wildfires or prescribed burns in the past 3 years, with 73,000 ha burnt in the previous 12 months.

At Terania Creek the leaf fall following the fire was so great that areas re-burnt weeks later when ignited as burning trees collapsed.

As well as affecting rainforest and oldgrowth trees, too frequent burning adversely affects plants that are obligate seeders with long maturity times, along with refuges and resources for an array of fauna.

The protection and expansion of forests are essential to take up and store the carbon we emit if we are to have any chance of limiting the worst of climate heating. As we continue to slash and burn our forests we are increasing their flammability and turning a vital carbon sink into another source of emissions.

We need to undertake a rigorous review of how we manage forests, manipulate fire and protect property if we are to adapt to this brave new world we are creating. Business as usual is a rapidly escalating catastrophe.

As a start we need a moratorium on logging of public forests to stop compounding impacts. The community stepped up to protect rainforests 40 years ago and its time to do so again.

Dailan Hugh OAM was arrested at Terania Creek in 1979 and has since devoted most of his life to protecting the forests of north – east NSW. He was a co-founder of the North East Forest Alliance in 1989 and is currently its President.

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