Australian authorities are battling to contain an ecological disaster on Fraser Island as devastating bushfires burn through half of the world’s largest sand island.
The wildfires, which have raged for seven weeks, threaten the unique ecosystem on the Unesco World Heritage-listed island, including the Valley of the Giants, a lush rainforest with 1,200 year old trees.
The blaze was sparked in mid-October by an illegal campfire and has ripped through 82,000 hectares on the island, which is located 250km north of Brisbane near the Great Barrier Reef marine park.
Experts warn the fires are unusual in their scale, intensity and timing. They are burning at the start of the summer during a La Niña weather event, which tends to be associated with increased rainfall on Australia’s east coast.
Some fear that the early blaze could indicate the onset of another blistering bushfire season as Australia recovers from last year’s “Black Summer” fires, which killed at least 34 people.
“What is concerning is that we’re seeing fires on the east coast, particularly Fraser Island, but also around Sydney. This shouldn’t be happening. This is just crazy. This is completely terrifying,” said David Bowman, professor of fire ecology at the University of Tasmania.
He said the La Niña weather pattern was not developing in the normal way because rainfall had been localised, episodic and sandwiched between extreme heatwaves that dry out the environment and leave it susceptible to fires.
Prof Bowman added that because of climate change, past weather events were no longer a reliable index for the present. He warned that Australians should prepare for more calamitous fires this summer.
The country experienced its hottest November on record this year, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. Temperatures in New South Wales and South Australia soared to highs of 46C and 48C, respectively, last weekend, while Queensland is also experiencing scorching weather.
High temperatures and rough terrain have complicated firefighting efforts on Fraser Island. Aircraft have dumped more than 1.8m litres of water and fire retardant gel on the flames this week. But there are concerns that authorities did not react quickly enough to contain the blaze and that it will spread to rainforest areas, which could suffer long-term damage.
The Queensland state government has ordered an inquiry into the response to the fires.
“We have 14 aircraft doing water bombing but the fire is not under control at this stage. It hasn’t yet got into the Valley of the Giants but it is likely to get to that area based on our current modelling,” Matthew Bulow, chief superintendent of Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, told the Financial Times.
Mr Bulow added the fires could burn for another week or two before enough rain is forecast to douse the fires.
Experts said bushfires were not unusual on Fraser Island and some of the affected areas, such as eucalyptus forests, which are fire adapted, should bounce back. But the main worry was for sensitive rainforest areas, including the Valley of the Giants, where the huge satinay and brush box trees draw researchers and tourists.
“Fraser is the only place in the world where wet rainforest grows on sand and that is one of the world heritage values. If fire gets into those areas it could have a devastating impact on the ecology,” said Patrick Moss, professor of ecology at University of Queensland.
The devastation on Fraser Island is generating anxiety among experts that Canberra has not done enough to prepare for this year’s bushfire season or the longer-term battle against climate change.
Unlike many nations, including the UK, China and Japan, Australia’s conservative government has refused to set a target date to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions.
“I think we are becoming like the Mayans — that [we believe] we can just keep doing the same old stuff and our civilisation will go on forever. But what got the Mayans was their environment changed and their civilisation collapsed,” said Prof Bowman.
“We need to understand this is an existential threat to the Australian way of life. Unless we get our act together we will just get burnt out.”