The term catastrophic is an understatement to describe Australia’s indescribably tragic bushfire season. More than half a billion animals and 29 humans have been killed in the fires across eastern and southern Australia since September. The fires have also destroyed more than 2,500 homes and razed an area roughly a third the size of Germany. Meanwhile, the paradox of extreme weather fluctuations has been evident than ever before when huge downpours lashed some of the fire-ravaged areas late last week. The wet weather gave exhausted firefighters a huge boost, helping to reduce or contain some blazes. But dozens of fires remain out of control, and authorities have warned the crisis could worsen again with Australia only half way through its summer.
The contrast in the unusual weather changes resulted in koalas at the Australian Reptile Park on the nation’s east coast near Sydney, which were in the path of raging bushfires a week ago, being carried to safety from flash floods. As highlighted in an article in theconversation.com, until the fires stop burning, the full extent of the environmental damage will not be known. But what is absolutely alarming is that these fires have significantly increased the extinction risk for many threatened species. It is estimated that most of the range and population of between 20 and 100 threatened species will have been burnt. These include the long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island’s glossy black-cockatoo and the Spring midge orchid.
Fire impacts are deeply felt in the longer-term. Many habitat features needed by wildlife, such as tree and log hollows, nectar-bearing shrubs and a deep ground layer of fallen leaves, may not develop for decades. Nature needs time and favourable conditions to regenerate, depending on the terrain and many other factors. Populations of plant and animal species found only in relatively small areas, which substantially overlap fire-affected areas, will be worst hit. Given the fires are continuing, the precise extent of this problem is still unknown. Fire has long been a feature of Australian environments, and many species and vegetation types have adapted to fire. But the current fires are in many cases beyond the limits of such adaptation. The fires are also burning environments that typically go unburnt for centuries, including at least the perimeter of World Heritage rainforests of the Lamington Plateau in south-eastern Queensland. In these environments, recovery – if at all – will be painfully slow.
Many Australian animal species, particularly threatened birds, favour long-unburnt vegetation because these provide more complex vegetation structure and hollows. Such habitat is fast disappearing. The shortening intervals between fires are also pushing some ecosystems beyond their limits of resilience. Some iconic Alpine Ash forests of Kosciuszko have experienced four fires in 20 or 30 years. This has reduced a grand wet forest ecosystem, rich in wildlife, to a dry scrub far more flammable than the original forest. Such ecosystem collapse is all but impossible to reverse. Fires also compound the impacts of other threats. Feral cats and foxes hunt more effectively in burnt landscapes and will inexorably pick off wildlife that may have survived the fire.
Australia may seem to a faraway place for many but the reality is that no country or continent is safe from climate change. Steps to bring global warming within control have to be augmented on a war footing.
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