Since devastating wildfires began raging across Australia last year, news emerging from the country has often been dire: 15.6 million acres of land burned, at least 28 people killed, more than one billion animals estimated dead. But this week, there was a heartening development. According to Adam Morton of the Guardian, firefighters have successfully saved Australia’s groves of Wollemi pines, a species of prehistoric tree known to survive only in the Wollemi National Park in New South Wales.
Once widespread across Australia, Wollemi pines reached their peak abundance some 34 to 65 million years ago. As Australia drifted northward and its climate cooled and dried, the trees began a steady decline; today, just 200 Wollemi pines grow on the northwestern outskirts of Sydney, in a deep, remote gorge bounded by steep sandstone cliffs.
When the Gospers Mountain Fire, a “mega-blaze” that has been burning since October, began encroaching on the trees’ last stand, “we knew we needed to do everything we could to save them,” says Matt Kean, New South Wales’ minister for energy and environment. A critical rescue operation was launched by experts with the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.
Air tankers dropped fire retardant onto the threatened area, and specialist firefighters were winched down to the site from helicopters to set up an irrigation system that would increase moisture on the ground. When the flames got close, firefighters were lowered into the area once again to operate the irrigation system. Helicopters bucketed water onto the edge of the fire in the hope of reducing its impact on the pines.
The fire eventually reached the Wollemi groves, and for days, smoke was so thick that the team could not tell if its operation had worked, Kean tells the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. When the haze cleared, experts found that some of the trees were charred, and two had died, according to NPR’s Laurel Wamsley. But on the whole, the species had survived.
The Wollemi pine, or Wollemia nobilis, can grow to more than 130 feet tall and is covered with soft, brown nodules that have been described as looking like both “chocolate crackles” and “rabbit feces.” It is an “exceedingly long-lived” tree, according to the Australian government; the oldest known Wollemi fossil is 90 million years old, but scientists think the species has existed since the Jurassic period, some 200 million years ago.
Experts once believed that the Wollemi pine had gone extinct. But in 1994, David Noble, an officer with the National Parks and Wildlife Service, was rappelling through Wollemi Park’s narrow canyons when he noticed a cluster of unusual-looking trees. Subsequent analysis revealed that Noble had “stumbled upon not only an unknown species, but also a tree outside any existing genus of the ancient Araucariaceae family of conifers,” Stephen McLoughlin and Vivi Vajda report for American Scientist.
Today, the precise location of Australia’s surviving Wollemi pines is a carefully guarded secret. Officials are concerned that should visitors trample regenerating plants in the area, or introduce new diseases, it would “devastate the remaining populations and their recovery,” Kean explains.
Though it posed an unnerving threat to the fragile trees, the recent bushfire is helping scientists figure out how to best protect Wollemi pines from future conflagrations—a crucial line of inquiry, given that climate change is making the country’s fire seasons longer and more intense.
“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,” Kean says.