Story at a glance

  • When the fires raging in southeastern Australia threatened the world’s only known natural stand of Wollemi pines, a special crew of firefighters was deployed to protect them.
  • The ancient tree species has been on Earth for some 200 million years and is now so rare they were thought to be extinct until being rediscovered in 1994.
  • Due to the efforts of the remote area firefighters, flying water tankers and flame retardants the stand of critically endangered Wollemi pines survived.

A specially deployed team of Australian firefighters has saved the only known natural stand of Wollemi pines from advancing flames.

The critically endangered tree is so rare it was once thought to be extinct and so ancient it is called the “dinosaur tree” — fossils of the species date back 200 million years. 

With fewer than 200 Wollemis left in the wild, Matt Kean, the environment minister for New South Wales, decided to send in a unit of remote-area firefighters with the express mission of protecting the trees, The Guardian reports.

All 200 of the trees reside in the canyons of Wollemi National Park, 100 miles northwest of Sydney. The stand saved by the firefighters’ efforts is located at an undisclosed sandstone grove, kept secret to prevent visitors from trampling the trees or introducing diseases.

To protect the Wollemis from the Gospers Mountain fire, which consumed 1.2 million acres before being contained earlier this week, fire crews pulled out all the stops. Air tankers dropped fire retardant, and firefighters rappelled in from helicopters to set up an irrigation system in the canyon where the trees were located. When the fire got close, helicopters dumped water at its edges to insulate the trees from damage. 

The idea was to keep the trees damp enough that if the fire did sweep through the gorge the burn would be cool enough that the trees could survive. 

The flames did pass through the Wollemi’s gorge, flickering about their ancient trunks. But when the smoke cleared, the group was relatively unscathed. Some trees were blackened, but only two died. 

Wollemi pines can grow 130 feet tall and have dark, nodule-covered bark similar to black popcorn. Vast forests of this unique species once covered Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica between 65 million to 34 million years ago. They were thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered by David Noble, an officer with the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, in 1994.

"This is a key asset, not only for the national parks, but for our entire country," Kean told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation

He thanked firefighters for their Herculean efforts but took a moment to highlight what necessitated their heroics. 

"The severity of this year's bush fires is not like anything we've ever seen. And that's due to climate change," Kean said. "There's a huge opportunity for us to lead the way in terms of tackling climate change and help the rest of the world decarbonize. There's no better country on the planet better placed to do that than Australia."

Published on Jan 16, 2020