Australia firefighters save world’s only rare dinosaur trees

Specialist firefighters have saved the world’s last remaining wild stand of a prehistoric tree from wildfires that razed forests west of Sydney, officials said Thursday.

Firefighters winched from helicopters to reach the cluster of fewer than 200 Wollemi Pines in a remote gorge in the Blue Mountains a week before a massive wildlife bore down, said David Crust, direct of the National Parks and Wildlife Service.

The firefighters set up an irrigation system to keep the prehistoric trees, also known as dinosaur trees, moist, and pumped water daily from the gorge as the blaze that had burned out of control for more than two months edged closer.

An aerial view of Wollemi National Park where endangered Wollemi Pines are being protected from bushfires by a specialist team of remote-area firefighters and parks staff at New South Wales, Australia. (NSW NPWS/Handout via Reuters)

Firefighting planes strategically bombed the fire front with fire retardant to slow its progress.

“That helped just to slow the intensity of the fire as it approached the site,” Crust told the Australian Broadcasting Corp.

“The Wollemi Pine is a particularly important species and the fact that this is the only place in the world where they exist and they exist in such small numbers is really significant.”

A member of the specialist team of remote-area firefighters and parks staff sprays water on an area with endangered Wollemi Pines to protect them from bushfires at Wollemi National Park. (NSW NPWS/Handout via Reuters)

New South Wales state Environment Minister Matt Kean said the operation had saved the stand, although some plants had been singed.

“These pines outlived the dinosaurs, so when we saw the fire approaching we realized we had to do everything we could to save them.”

The Wollemi Pine had only been seen in its fossilized form and was thought long extinct before the stand was found in 1994.

The fire that threatened it was brought under control this week after razing more than 510,000 hectares. The fire also destroyed 90 per cent of the 5,000-hectare Wollemi National Park, where the rare trees grow, Crust said.

A helicopter hovers overhead as a specialist team of remote-area firefighters and parks staff inspects the endangered Wollemi Pines for bushfire damage at Wollemi National Park. (NSW NPWS/Handout via Reuters)

The exact location of the stand remains a closely guarded secret to help authorities protect the trees.

The Wollemi’s survival is one of the few positive stories to emerge from the unprecedented wildlife crisis in southeast Australia.

The fires have claimed at least 28 lives since September, destroyed more than 2,600 homes and razed more than 10.3 million hectares, mostly in New South Wales state. The area burned is larger than the U.S. state of Indiana.

But the fire danger has been diminished by rain this week in several areas. The first green buds of regrowth have already emerged in some blacked forests following rain.