Australia starts to reckon with damage as rain slows down bush fires

Despite welcome rain that helped slow down raging bush fires in some of the hardest-hit areas in two Australian states, a large area of World Heritage-listed forest on Sydney's outskirts has been destroyed in the weeks-long blazes, officials said Friday.  

Despite welcome rain that helped slow down raging bush fires in some of the hardest-hit areas in two Australian states, a large area of World Heritage-listed forest on Sydney’s outskirts has been destroyed in the weeks-long blazes, officials said Friday.

Drought-hit New South Wales (NSW), the worst bush fire-hit state in Australia, was set to receive up to 50 millimeters of rain on Friday in parts of the state, the best downpour in several months.

“It won’t put all these fires out but certainly it’s slowed them right down and I think it’s given a significant morale boost,” Rural Fire Service deputy commissioner Rob Rogers told Channel Seven television on Friday.

He said there had been rainfall “on most fires now, at least 10mm” since Wednesday evening, particularly in the state’s South, “in areas where it’s harder to get to.”

Animals at the Australian Reptile Park on the New South Wales Central Coast had to be evacuated after flash flooding due to torrential rain.

Less than 80 bush fires were burning Friday afternoon in New South Wales, but all of them were at the lowest “advice” alert level.

In Victoria, there were 17 fires across the state, with one “evacuate now” order. Some new fires were sparked by lightning on Thursday, fire authorities said.

Some 1,700 firefighters in New South Wales and 1,500 in Victoria are battling the bush fires.

Large areas of World Heritage-listed forests have burned this bush fire season that started early in September, a government official confirmed.

“While it is too early to be definitive, around 80 percent of the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area (WHA) has been affected by fires of varying intensity,” a spokesperson for the New South Wales Department of Planning Industry and Environment told dpa on Friday.

The Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area, a popular tourist destination 60 kilometers west of Sydney, is a million hectares of national park and wilderness dominated by temperate eucalyptus forest home to 96 species, or one-third of all eucalyptus species.

The area is known for exceptional biodiversity and is home to a number of rare plants. It also boasts Aboriginal heritage and unique geological features.

More than a dozen bush fires continue to burn in the Blue Mountains World Heritage Area.

Four large bush fires broke out in the southern side of the Blue Mountains in November and December, while the northern Blue Mountains region saw several fires in October.

The northern region fires later joined together in December to form the Gospers Mountain “mega-blaze” in Sydney’s north-east, which burned more than half a million hectares.

The authorities said this week they were able to save the Wollemi Pines, one of the world’s oldest and rarest tree species belonging to a 200-million-year-old plant family presumed extinct until 1994.

According to the environment department, the other World Heritage Area affected by the fires is the Gondwana Rainforest, which includes several subtropical rainforests of 366,500 hectares spreading across northern NSW and southern Queensland.

Around half of Gondwana has been affected by the fires.

Both Blue Mountains and Gondwana world heritage areas “contain a mixture of forest types – some readily adaptive to fire such as eucalypt forest and others that are highly sensitive to fire like a dense rainforest,” the spokesperson said.

“Analysis will improve as the forests become safe to enter and the smoke clears, enabling accurate satellite and aerial imagery to help guide our assessment and on work on the ground.

“Understanding the impact of the fires on these areas is a priority.”

The NSW Government is “working on a wildlife and habitat recovery plan following the bushfires,” the spokesperson said.

Professor John Merson says the destruction of Australian flora and fauna is “tragic.”

“People are used to living with fires. It is not unfamiliar. In the Blue Mountains, we need fires for regeneration.

“This is a fire-dependent ecosystem. The species here are fire-adapted.”

“What is unprecedented this time is the sheer scale, frequency, and intensity of the fires,” Merson, who is the director of Blue Mountains World Heritage Institute, told dpa on Friday.

“The problem is the expansive nature of the fire that burned with such high intensity.

“We will definitely lose unique biodiversity that is ecologically important and niche.”

“About 800,000 hectares of Blue Mountains World Heritage Area is burned. That is three times larger than Luxemburg.

“But a square kilometer of an area here will have more variety of species than an entire continent of Europe.”

Merson said climate change is “a big game-changer.”

“Climate change is driving more intense and extreme forms of weather events.

“Australia has become the world leader in terms of climate change destructiveness,” he said.

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