In a rare speck of good news amid Australia’s mounting bushfire crisis, firefighters and conservation experts have saved the world’s only natural grove of Wollemi pines from the devastating Gospers Mountain blaze.
The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) yesterday revealed the good news, saying a “secret” and “military-style” operation protected the ancient trees in Wollemi National Park.
The NPWS states the region was air-bombed with fire retardant to keep the flames away, with “specialist NPWS firefighters being winched into the remote site from helicopters to set up an irrigation system” in the secluded gorge.
Some of the trees were still hit by flames, but it appears the grove has survived without too much damage.
You may be asking what’s so special about the trees, and why the whole situation was kept a secret. In short, the Wollemi pines are basically miraculous: the prehistoric species was thought to be fully extinct until 1994, when researchers found the grove of roughly 200 trees stuck between rock cliff-faces.
Fossil records show Wollemi pines were prevalent between 200 million and 100 million years ago, meaning those trees were kicking about when dinosaurs were living their best pre-mammal lives.
As for the secrecy, it turns out fire isn’t even the greatest risk to those old-as-hell trees. The location of the gorge has been kept under wraps for ages, with researchers fearful the grove could be susceptible to bugs and diseases brought in by visitors.
In a statement, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said the whole operation will serve as an example for future preservation efforts.
“The 2019 wildfire is the first ever opportunity to see the fire response of mature Wollemi Pine in a natural setting, which will help us refine the way we manage fire in these sites long-term,” he said.
And if you want to grab one for yourself, you can order a cultivated Wollemi pine here. May as well decorate your balcony with a living fossil, right?