Bees Nest fire causes unprecedented damage to Gondwana rainforest

Bellingen's Morgan Sherry-Dadd and Lachlan Scott working to save forest at Mt Hyland. Photo Mark Graham
Bellingen's Morgan Sherry-Dadd and Lachlan Scott working to save forest at Mt Hyland. Photo Mark Graham

Seven homes lost but 156 saved. Stock losses in the hundreds, and death and injury to an unknown amount of wildlife.

But the big number in the damage wreaked by the Bees Nest fire on the Dorrigo Plateau is the extent of the land scorched.

Almost a thousand square kilometres - an area bigger than the nation of Singapore.

And while grass on farms will regrow, and an army of volunteers is coming to help rebuild fences, there's been terrible losses in our ancient Gondwana rainforests.

Places like Mount Hyland, where Rosie Yates and her allies, having fought for days to save the house, then turned their attention to saving the landscape around them.

Made vulnerable by the long drought, which has seen the Dorrigo Plateau receive only a third of its normal rainfall this year, swathes of normally lush, wet forest that never evolved to burn caught fire.

With other firefighting resources devoted to protecting human life and property, Rosie put out a call on social media for people with strong arms and legs, who knew and loved the Mt Hyland forest, to come and save it.

"The rainforest is on fire and we need some help to put out the flames," she wrote on September 13.

"This is ancient old growth rainforest. We don't have many tools and we need some rake hoes and leaf blowers to get the flames out and down to bare earth.

"It is hard work and you need to be very fit. It is very steep, rocky, smoky and hot and in some places there are no trails, and you need to have a good sense of navigation and good boots. We will work in small teams.

"So please don't come if you are lame and have a bad attitude, are cranky when you don't get enough sleep, or if you have any respiratory issues. We have no energy left to do counselling sessions for people, we just need hard workers with a good heart for the forest. Only people who are fit and bush wise."

She also started a donation drive on Facebook to buy a professional firefighting unit and other gear, aiming for $7000 but raising $12,000 within a few days.

The professional firefighting equipment bought with donations

The professional firefighting equipment bought with donations

Victorian paramedic Henry Garrad, 28, who grew up in Bellingen, was one of those who answered the call.

He'd first visited Rosie's 400-hectare Mt Hyland forest retreat with a Bellingen EYE (environmental youth experience) camp and also spent a week there in 2009 with a Wilderness Youth Theatre group.

"I come up every few months to see my family," Henry said. "I knew that Guy Fawkes was burning and Rosemary's place was under threat. I had a few days off work, I didn't have to be back until Thursday, so I thought it would be the best place for me to spend my time and energy."

Heny Garrad. Photo Rosie Yates

Heny Garrad. Photo Rosie Yates

The group who gathered included old friends from Bellingen EYE, Joe Newton and Pip Glover, so it was a reunion of sorts as well as hard work.

"It was easing off towards the end, but the first couple of days we'd be up by 5.30 doing first patrols, checking that there was no new burning on any of the fire lines. And in bed after the last patrol at about 11 or 12.

"They were much more civilised days than had been going on earlier in the week, where I think people had basically barely slept."

As a teenager, Henry had been impressed by the lush, green forest with its 1000-year-old trees, its prolific birdlife and the extensive list of threatened species in residence.

"It was pretty sad to see it this time," he said. "Substantial amounts have been burnt, forest you'd never think could burn because it's usually so damp.

"The understorey and even the soil is burnt. The lush rainforest soil made up of decomposing leaves has turned to a blanket of ash."

"It was six inches deep in places, it was over your shoes. You were wading through this layer of ash. It's tragic."

A snake at Mt Hyland petrified by the fire. Photo Henry Garrad

A snake at Mt Hyland petrified by the fire. Photo Henry Garrad

Ecologist Mark Graham said thankfully some of the biggest and deepest chunks of rainforest on the Plateau haven't burnt.

"But their edges have been significantly eroded by these unprecedented fires," he said. "Their effective size has been reduced and they're now exposed to more drying."

He warned that future fire events could see further penetration in to these ancient, fire-sensitive habitats.

Asked if he thought climate change, with its more intense droughts and fires, would inevitably push such rainforests towards savannah, he said we may well be on the path to such change.

"The forests at Mt Hyland are an unbroken lineage of 80 million years. Throughout all that time, there has always been this damp, permanently wet forest type there.

"But I think we're on a pathway to the likely ongoing erosion and potential loss of these ancient refuges.

"It's highly likely that this event has accelerated that change."

Ash in the rainforest. Photo Mark Graham

Ash in the rainforest. Photo Mark Graham