Local ecologist tells the world about Australia's bushfires

Mark Graham

Mark Graham

For years, Bishops Creek resident and Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham has been an authoritative, lucid, local voice on environmental issues.

He has been deeply involved with the campaign to save the Kalang Headwaters, as a spokesperson and also as part of the citizen science team that documented populations of koalas, greater gliders and potoroos that Forestry surveys had failed to find.

But it was the unprecedented bushfires that began ravaging national parks and nature reserves on the Mid North Coast in September that propelled him onto first the national and now the international stage.

As he battled to quell pockets of fire burning through Gondwana rainforest at Mt Hyland and Billys Creek, Mark was simultaneously taking phone calls from metropolitan media working on stories about the challenge of bushfires in the age of climate change, such as this one, 'An ill wind fans the flames', by the Sydney Morning Herald.

But the world only really started to take notice of what was happening in Australia when the infernos moved south, wreaking terrible destruction and loss of life on the NSW South Coast and Victoria and casting hazardous, view-annihilating smoke across major cities like Sydney, Melbourne and Canberra.

In the last week or so, Mark has been called upon by the global media over a dozen times as they present our country as an example of what a hotter and drier world with more ferocious droughts and fires looks like.

On Tuesday at 11.20pm he was on the phone to Chicago TV, then up again at 5.10am to take part in a live 45-minute panel discussion by France24 in Paris titled 'Why is Australia burning? Bushfires spark calls for urgent overhaul of climate policy'.

As the only Australian on the panel, he fielded a wide-ranging set of questions, from the impact of air pollution on the tennis in Melbourne to the sustainability of our volunteer-dominated firefighting force and the popularity of coal and Scott Morrison.

Panel discussion on France24 - 'Why is Australia burning? Bushfires spark calls for urgent overhaul of climate policy'.

Panel discussion on France24 - 'Why is Australia burning? Bushfires spark calls for urgent overhaul of climate policy'.

The previous week, journalists from London's ITV News had spent a day with him at Bishops Creek, incorporating the experience into a multimedia piece called 'Earth on the Edge: How the extremes of drought, heat and wind destroy Australian rainforests'.

"I showed them where the fires had got to in the world heritage Gondwana areas in relation to our property," Mark said. "They also interviewed Dominic [King] on the water supply situation.

"They were interested in the fact that the wettest nook in NSW was sustaining harm. I explained how what are normally permanently moist areas are now available to burn."

Mark has also done interviews with media from the United States, Canada, France, Germany, Israel, UK and most recently with Australian Geographic.

"For me it's been a bit of a whirlwind," he said.

The barrage of interview requests came hot on the heels of months of hard, physical fire preparation and firefighting work on his own land and that of his friends and neighbours.

Fire in Gondwana rainforest. Photo Mark Graham

Fire in Gondwana rainforest. Photo Mark Graham

The rain that fell over Christmas gave a brief reprieve, but from December 28 there were another ten days of flare-ups on his property with fire coming to within 100m of his house.

"Across the course of three or four days, I lay in bed and watched my old growth valley burn," Mark said. "The vast majority of the 200 to 400 year old eucalypts on the slopes and ridges have entirely collapsed."

He caught this 50m high tree flaming at 11pm one night, after seeing it puff for days, then worked by torchlight raking and leaf-blowing to make sure the fire didn't run.

Mark said there are still 'smokers' in the Darkwood end of the New England National Park but the milder and damper conditions will hopefully put an end to them.

Now, in his capacity as an employee of the NSW Nature Conservation Council, he's turning his mind to a managed recovery, disseminating information about the top priority actions.

These include providing water and food for starving wildlife, installing nest boxes to replace lost hollows, and deploying sediment-filtering cylinders to mitigate the impact of the bushfires on our creeks and rivers when solid rain comes.

"The big issue now is attempting to prevent the ash and sediment from entering the waterways," Mark said. "There are so many people looking for advice about what they can do."

Fish are already dying in rivers on the Mid North Coast, including thousands of bass in the Upper Macleay at Bellbrook.

"We're seeing the flow-on consequences of these landscape-scale fires that burn out practically every bit of available bush, and then you get some rain and it just hammers the aquatic ecosystem," Mark said.

Preventing this from happening is an urgent task, made more difficult by funding cuts to the agencies whose responsibility it should be, but Mark is heartened by how community is willing to step into the breach.

"So many people care. I think this is where we need to go. Governments have failed, on so many levels, and all we've really got is community."

A Blackbutt in New England National Park. Thousands of these old trees, which would normally be so wet at the base that fire couldn't enter them, have burnt and collapsed. Photo Mark Graham

A Blackbutt in New England National Park. Thousands of these old trees, which would normally be so wet at the base that fire couldn't enter them, have burnt and collapsed. Photo Mark Graham