DAILAN PUGH. A Fiery Future

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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6 Responses to DAILAN PUGH. A Fiery Future

  1. Dr John Benson says:

    From what I understand most of the fires were started by lightening but humans certainly had a role in some. There has been unprecedented dryness and a lack of easterly breezes for respite. Even in bad past fire years nothing like this extend overall of forest has burnt – the oft-cited 1974 NSW fire area statistics are in part comprised of large area inland grass and scrub fires following wet years where ground cover growth was abundant then dried off. You cannot compare those inland fires to those impacting wet tall forest and rainforest burning today. The latter are or were some of the most pristine and bio-rich areas in NSW and Australia – much of our wildlife depended on these forests surviving intact in large patches. So one could agree with Dailan that we may be witnessing a 1:1000 year event BUT this may become more frequent with a drying landscape. Some rainforest types including “dry” rainforest types in the Oxley Gorges and at Willi Willi inland from Kempsey may struggle to recover if rainfall decreases and temepratures rise. Scientific monitoring plots would help track this over time. One matter of great concern is that there will be significant losses in wood from production forests to meet RFA 20 year wood quotas. What must not be allowed is for these wood supplies to be sourced from remnant unburnt refugia forest – doing that would further drive many native species towards localised or total extinction. So this is a time for a reassessment of native forest logging in NSW.

  2. Jack Whadcoat says:

    A very worthwhile article which must be shared world-wide. Your progressive thinking and clear observations should be part of the school curriculums so that our children have a chance to witness and learn how stupid a deal their parents have been dealt a blow never to be corrected. “Sad but true”
    There must be a better way to live in this world than the way currently being attended if we are going to prolong life on this planet. Mind you– we don’t deserve the chance.

  3. Allan Kessing says:

    Fire is as Australian as a tune on a gum leaf.
    Conflagrations such as we are currently experiencing, pre the soi-disant “bush fire season” (sic!), are the more disastrous due to current settlement patterns.
    Tree changers and low intensity hobbyists should consider this factor as the norm for the future and build accordingly.
    The utility of earth covered dwellings is so obvious that their very rarity suggests the need public discussion – they are cheaper to build, cheaper to warm/heat, as impervious to harm as is possible to imagine and ideal for low impact living.
    They are in every way the ultimate for off-grid living, from power consumption to power output, with their great mass, profile and ability to recover from passing disaster.

  4. Prue Acton says:

    Climate emergency meets Species emergency = Extinction emergency
    We,who for decades have warned of this catastrophe, feel no joy in being right.

  5. Michael Hart says:

    Dalian – the scale of this tragedy continues to grow. As you outline the devastation is more than significant and words are inadequate to express the nature of this loss and our role in fermenting it. Similarly but not as publicly as Terrania Creek we have over a decade and a half we have worked and worked, to preserve a precious and unique pocket of native forest and grasslands here on the NE Tablelands, well south of Terrania Creek. It is home to many very old trees and home to numerous fauna and a residual pocket of five endangered species of eucalypts alone unique to the NE Tableland, trees that have stood for hundreds of years. For two weeks now we watched wildfires ravage the hills and surrounding landscape reducing pristine wilderness (the Moonbi Ranges) to a charred desolation of black trees and grey dirt. No rain no regeneration, so it will stay like that until there is another fire to burn the litter left and another unusual rainfall event from a storm blasts away the fragile burnt dead crust and erodes the hills further. The birds are but a handful, marsupials incinerated and the survivors easy roadkill for speeding trucks and motorists and everyone everts their gaze at the awfulness of it but we are not going to talk about it because to talk about it means to recognize the spectre of our deaths and our role in the destruction facing us now!

    Yet it also seems we have lost, as you outline, now probably about 20% plus of our last forested areas in this state, we have lost the only means to naturally sequester and store our carbon emissions but we are losing the very skin upon which life depends, the earth, reducing living biomass to ash and inert lifeless dirt. My simple calculations indicate the loss of carbon storage alone will probably equal the total emissions for the whole state of NSW. That means CHG reduction will now become impossible, not that it really was with BAU. So these fires merely release stored carbon back into the atmosphere.

    Meanwhile the drought continues the surviving flora and fauna continues to perish, disappear or is damaged, it is not an isolatable problem capable of being dealt with by any of us, quite frankly, yes we need to fight to preserve what is left but the preservation is rapidly made irrelevant. The drought will continue and may outlast us as a society yet, then what? What once was but may have been is now upon us and if your not absolutely living in fear of what this man made catastrophe is doing to us, will now do to us and every other living thing on the planet then you have no idea of the serious of our predicament. This is not a threat this is the event that we have all dreaded and tried to forewarn and forestall, from here on in it never gets better only worse. The tragedy is that we were warned, we were counselled to not do it, we were counselled to stop and change but instead we preferred the comfort of our greed and delusions, well to use an old biblical phrase, it is now ashes in our mouths.

    Emotional, perhaps, but if your not emotional about this then you are already dead.

    • Dailan Pugh says:

      Michael, I share your grief. Terania Creek is only symbolic of the many precious areas being ravished by drought and fires. So many areas that so many people battled for years to protect.
      You are right that our society was warned and failed to act. Though the scale of this year’s disaster is worse than I expected. Historically it may be a one in a thousand year event, though I worry that it is a foretaste of the future.
      I have witnessed the progressive loss of the Great Barrier Reef as it has been ravished by marine heatwaves initiating coral bleaching events with increasing frequency. I now expect to outlive it.
      I am fearful that it is now the forests turn. Given that they take up a third of our carbon emissions, and are home to most of our terrestrial biodiversity, they are our last hope of averting the worst of human-induced climate heating.
      As devastating as the fires are, most forests can recover if given a chance, so I am not yet willing to give up hope.

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