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AustraliaGold Coast hinterland fire prompts question — can rainforests burn?

07:55  09 september  2019
07:55  09 september  2019 Source:   abc.net.au

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Gold Coast hinterland fire prompts question — can rainforests burn?© Provided by Australian Broadcasting Corporation The Binna Burra Lodge in Lamington National Park sat amongst rainforest and eucalypt forest. (ABC Gold Coast: Damien Larkins)

Acting Queensland Premier Jackie Trad says the Gold Coast hinterland fire that swept through the area over the weekend included areas of rainforest — a highly unusual event, but one that appears to be occurring more frequently in recent times.

Gold Coast hinterland fire prompts question — can rainforests burn?
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University of Queensland Associate Professor Rod Fenshaw said it was "a bit premature to know to what extent the rainforest has burnt" but similar fires occurred in Central Queensland just last year.

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"You have to wonder about the effects of global climate change on our climate when it is less than a year [since] we had those really exceptional fires in Central Queensland," he said.

"You might have been able to excuse them as a one-off event last year, but here we are less than a year later and we have another set of fires in Queensland.

"We have these two very divergent biomes — the rainforest which is diverse in tree species and quite fire resistant, and the eucalyptus forest which is actually quite flammable and does burn. And generally, fires burn through the eucalyptus forest from time to time, and sharpen the boundaries between the two systems."

Griffith University PhD student Patrick Norman is studying protected land management and was a former park ranger at the Lamington National Park where the fires occurred.

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"It's very concerning, especially this early in the season, so for fires to be starting in early September is very concerning, let alone in rainforest.

"It doesn't happen often and I'm really hoping it's mainly sticking to the eucalypt forests around the rainforests.

"Some observations from the VIIRS (Visual Infrared Imagining Radiometer Suite) satellite that detects temperature changes in forests, suggests it looks like there are actually a few areas of rainforest burnt, which is very concerning.

"To my knowledge this hasn't happened before in the Gold Coast hinterland. It takes 100 to 150 years for sub-tropical rainforest to regrow ... especially those large emergent trees that stick out over the top of the canopy, so waiting for those trees to get big enough, is a long time.

"The area that looks like it's been burnt, there are a few threatened bird species ... the black-breasted button quail, it's a nice known habitat in that area, so that's a major concern."

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'Fire can start almost anywhere'

Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC chief executive Richard Thornton said the dry conditions meant no areas were safe.

"Going back over the past number of years, where we've had ongoing drought conditions throughout most of south-eastern Queensland, and indeed, all the way down the east coast, our outlook was saying that these areas in particularly, these areas would be susceptible to above average fire threat this year," Mr Thornton said.

"Given the conditions that we're seeing here, with ongoing drought and above average temperatures, fire can start almost anywhere because the fuel is just so dry.

"We are always surprised when rainforest starts to burn, it indicates how dry and how dangerous the conditions are. Rainforests normally don't burn but they will burn when the conditions are right, but it's very unusual for rainforest to burn.

"Certainly last year in central and northern Queensland we saw rainforest burning as part of those fires and more recently we've seen fires in extreme fire intolerant landscapes in Tasmania, in what were usually areas that don't burn too well ... the challenge is how we deal with this because it's not a normal occurrence.

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"If it's a eucalypt-dominated forest — even if it's a rainforest understory, you will get fires occasionally."

Without rain, Mr Thornton said further fires in rainforest areas were possible.

"Considering the current dry conditions, we shouldn't be surprised to see fires in rainforest again ... that's probably the case until we get decent rainfall," he said.

"The only thing that will stop these fires is good quality rainfall. And the only thing that will lower the fire danger risk this coming summer is a sustained period of rain, one or two days just won't do it. It will need to be substantial rainfall and there's none of that in the outlook that we can see."

'Let's hope it doesn't happen'

Shane O'Reilly from O'Reilly's Rainforest Retreat said his family had arrived on the mountain in 1911 and he was unaware of the rainforest in the area ever being impacted by fire.

"There has never been a bushfire in the rainforest but in the eucalypt country many times but that's lower down the mountain," he said.

"We're surrounded by the sub-tropical rainforest that doesn't burn or hasn't burned to the best of our knowledge, ever.

"Binna Burra nearly burnt down a couple of decades ago when the Groom family were doing some backburning and a fire got away and they nearly lost the lodge then.

"I think anyone who lives in eucalypt country, you really have to be extremely aware that you're facing a potential problem at some stage.

"We're not worried because we're surrounded by rainforest, we're in a very fortunate situation.

"I'm not saying it won't burn in the future, but a scientist once told me it's been about 3 million years since that sub-tropical rainforest has burnt ... let's hope it doesn't happen in the next couple of decades."

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