Native forests recover from bushfires


Blackdown Tableland National Park, September 2020

We were at least one kilometre into a bush walk at Blackdown Tableland National Park in central Queensland before realising it was recovering from a bushfire. Such is the extent of regrowth since September 2018, it is only when you see trees that have been completely hollowed out by fire that you become aware.

She Who Bush Walks pointed out what she called ‘epicormic growth’ which is what occurs when buds buried beneath the bark of a burned tree burst into life.

You might recall hearing about this particular fire, two years ago to the day, when eleven tourists became trapped at the park’s feature attraction, Rainbow Falls. A fire and rescue worker was winched down from a helicopter to take charge of the eight adults and three children and lead them to safety.

At the time, fire was also raging 300kms away in Carnarvon Gorge National Park, which from all reports has also bounced back from the ravages of fire.

When fire burns out a patch of bush, it is not the ecological disaster it may at first seem. Fire burns plant material above the ground surface, which clears the way for new growth once the ground has cooled and there is follow-up rain.

According to educational material prepared by the Tropical Savannas Cooperative Research Centre & Bushfire CRC, regrowth primarily comes from above-ground re-sprouting.

 While many trees are killed by total defoliation following a fire, some can re-sprout from epicormic buds, which are buds positioned beneath the bark. Eucalyptus trees are known for their ability to vegetatively regenerate branches along their trunks from buds.

Below-ground roots and underground stems can also survive because soil is a good insulator. Plants survive fires by re-sprouting from basal stems, roots and horizontal rhizomes”.


Epicormic growth after bushfire

We explored several tracks in the park although after about 8 kms we did not have the energy to climb down to the rockpools (and back up again), fed by Rainbow Falls. The latter is popular with central Queensland residents and holiday makers, who can either camp in the park or travel from campgrounds and accommodation at nearby Dingo or Bluff. (above, epicormic growth).

The park ecology has certainly thrived since recent rainfall. Wildflowers were proliferating along the trails and it was great to see vigorous new growth climbing up the sides of burned trees.

We encountered a group of Aboriginal families, descended from the original inhabitants, exploring the culture trail with a couple of Rangers. A bluff at Blackdown Tableland is the site of a sandstone overhang, under which rock stencils are preserved

The traditional owners, the Gunghalin people, manage the 47,950ha Blackdown Tableland in a co-operative venture with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. As part of this agreement, 70ha has been set aside as a conservation site for cultural purposes.

We chatted to an older woman on the cultural trail who explained why she was going ‘Cooee’ every now and then: “I’m letting the ancestors know I’m here,” she said.

Despite the progressive nature of this management agreement, I could not help but feel a twinge of white settler guilt when reading the history of the park.

Blackdown Tableland National Park was settled as a grazing homestead and perpetual lease property in 1869. Settler William Yaldwin named the tableland after the family home, Blackdown House, in Sussex, England. In more recent times, Blackdown Tableland was gazetted as a State forest and timber extraction site because of its store of valuable hardwood timbers. QPWS says most of the pastoral artefacts are being allowed to decay naturally into the landscape. Wildfires have caused damage to the cattle yards and fences at Mimosa Creek campground.

This week’s FOMM coincides with the first anniversary of the catastrophic ‘Black Summer’ bushfire season across six States and Territories.

The 2019-2020 bushfire season began as early as August in some states and at its worst in February had burned out 17 million hectares.

The statistics are confronting, so I apologise in advance to those directly affected for bringing this up again.

Across six months fire caused:

  • 33 deaths (including nine firefighters);
  • the loss of 3,094 homes;
  • 5,000 people to become homeless;
  • the loss of one billion native mammals, birds and reptiles;
  • More than 85% of the World Heritage Listed Blue Mountains reserve in NSW to be affected;
  • Fire damage in 153 parks and reserves, 55 of them suffering comprehensive damage;

The Bureau of Meteorology concluded that the fires were the largest by geographic area in modern times. About half of the fires were started by lighting strikes. The rest were said to be of ‘human origin’, the majority accidentally started.

In late September 2019, we left our home of 17 years in the Sunshine Coast hinterland for a new adventure on the Southern Downs. Our temporary home was a 1950s farm cottage at Yangan, 18 kms from Warwick, while waiting for settlement on the house we were buying in town.

Because of serial fires burning in the high country around Cunningham’s Gap and the surrounding areas, the whole valley was often blanketed in dense bushfire smoke. At night you could see the flames licking the tops of the hills. As the weather warmed through October and November we often had to keep the house closed up. Some days the smoke was so bad we could not go outdoors. The towns of Warwick and Stanthorpe were also affected by smoke.

The reprieve came in January with a solid day of rain, followed by heavier falls that topped up our new rainwater tank and partially replenished the town dams. We’re still on water restrictions though, despite a cumulative total of about 450mm for calender 2020.

A year on, after the public in general donated more than $500 million, many people left homeless by the Black Summer bushfires are still living in caravans and tents or sharing homes with friends and relatives.

Despite some decent winter rain, many parts of Australia are still in drought, with dozens of towns on water restrictions. Television news footage of wildfires in California’s Napa Valley this week will be provoking anxiety among survivors of last year’s bushfires.

The Bureau of Meteorology, meanwhile, is confidently forecasting La Nina weather conditions in 2020-2021, which means rain and more rain and an early wet season for the tropical north.

People in the bush, where droughts and bushfires are part of everyday life, tend to be stoic. But on our western journey, it became evident that 2020 has left its mark. COVID-19 restrictions have robbed the outback of its annual influx of tourists and much-needed revenue.

Let’s hope that workers, small businesses, farmers and bushfire victims in rural Australia are not forgotten in next week’s Federal Budget.

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