Flames leaped sideways and leaped over the treetops. It was January 2020, and Greg Slade passed through smoke and eucalyptus trees along a burning road on Kangaroo Island, Australia.
Already, Slade, the acting manager of a jungle retreat, had evacuated 18 employees and dozens of guests. He returns to protect the hotel, but the retreat will not survive the worst fire season in the nation’s history, with 50-knot winds and scorching heat. This, like thousands of homes and businesses, will soon be reduced to smoking debris.
On that day it took Slade 12 hours to get security. He spent the next 10 months traveling and, this October, landed a job at another retreat on Fraser Island, Australia’s 700-square-mile east of Queensland.
But weeks into his job, a new wildfire forced him to evacuate again.
The 42-year-old Slade says the new blaze “went awry and fell within the 100-meter range.” Luck, weather and Australia’s fire brigade saved the business. But for the first time in memory of Fraser Island, an ecological oasis and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all were burned at once.
In the wake of last year’s devastating bushes in Australia, which killed at least 33 people and three billion animals, from cuckoos to frogs, and burned an area twice the size of Pennsylvania, the country still wrestled with a future Beginning which makes promises sometimes big and sometimes fierce fire.
As the most explosive part of Australia’s fire season is generally underway, weather patterns indicate that this year will be accompanied by heavy rains, perhaps tempering flames and the country’s scorching heat and drought. The rain this week helped firefighters eventually extinguish the Fraser Island fire, although the burn is expected to be smoldering in January.
But as the island experience becomes clear, unique landscapes across the continent are at risk for climate change, flawed land management, and other environmental hazards as fire rages change and spread.
A rare place at risk
Fraser Island, also known by its tribal name, K’gari, is the largest sand dune island in the world, with reefs, unusual dune lakes and rare ecosystems. Its signature is an inland rainforest of vistas, Kaurai pines, giant ferns, and turpentine trees that can live up to a thousand years. The island’s beaches, heathlands, and forests are also home to foxes, skeletons, sea turtles, and wild dingoes flying for sensitive species, knots, petrels and other birds.
Fraser’s October fire was ignited by an illegal beach campfire. Unlike the racing megafires that burned large parts of New South Wales and Victoria a year ago, this explosion did not occur with force or speed. But its slow march was relentless. “It was dangerous how big it was,” says Rod Fensham, professor of ecology at the University of Queensland.
Fire is a natural part of Fraser’s landscape, but in recent years the winter dry season has subsequently expanded into spring and warmed by climate change. According to Jamie Shulmister, a researcher at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand, who has studied Fraser for years, which rapidly heals vegetation and cooks for fire to run uncontrollably before it is sighted.
“In the old days,” he says, “that type of fire could have happened easily, but the likelihood is that it will go out after a day or two.” Instead, this one crushed over 200,000 acres and burned for two months straight.
Fraser is heavily populated, and pockets of its homes and businesses were spared. But the geology of the island is unlike anywhere else. It lives in nests sensitive to plants and animals, such as acidic marshes with fish and amphibians particularly adapted to tolerate water chemistry.
Even in areas that were developed by fire, flames that burn too hot can destroy vegetation cover, allowing sand to move with the winds. Once initiated, the island’s dune system may shift, possibly reconfiguring the entire ecosystem.
This is not the only risk. Thus, it appears that the fire did not enter the rainforest of Fraser Island, both Shulmeister and Fensham say. But a South American tree fungus is said to have a mirror rust vegetation near its edge. Larger hot burns combined with myrtle rust can alter shade species’ ability to regenerate, making it difficult for rain plants to take root. For the rainforest, fire can “pose an existential threat to survival”, Shulmister says.
It would be years ago when Shulmeister could ask to be sure if the explosion had caused damage that could not be undone. For now, he hopes the Fraser Island fire is “mostly a warning sign.”
Slade, for one, certainly warns.
After his evacuation order, Slade returns to work. Like many Australians, he is comfortable around wildfires. He has watched in the bush in Victoria, the area around Melbourne in South Australia, in his 20s and has even taken courses in fire management. And unlike their experience on Kangaroo Island, no one on Fraser, even during the evacuation, felt like they were running away from their lives.
But the next day he launched a campaign to survey the damage. Even though the Fraser Blaze burned slower than last year’s megfire, its raw power was not hard to stop.
“A lot of vegetation is completely buried in the ground,” Slade says.
He is not eager to pass again.