W.After an illegal campfire, ildfire scorched around half of Fraser Island, a World Heritage Site off the east coast of Australia. There are concerns that the sand island’s unique rainforest ecosystems could be threatened in bad weather.
Fraser Island, also known as K’gari by the locals of Butchulla who hold a native title over the island, is the largest sand island in the world – 76 miles long – but it’s also home to rainforests and other ecosystems, including numerous freshwater dune lakes .
While some plant species need fire to regenerate, ecologist Gabriel Conroy of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland is concerned about the island’s fauna, from microbial communities to the island’s signature – and sometimes infamous – native dogs known as Dingoes Conroy studies.
“They’re very adaptable feeders, but you’re talking about fifty percent of the island’s ecosystems and habitat that were wiped out in one fell swoop. That’s significant,” he says. Conroy has studied the genetics of the dingo population on K’gari-Fraser Island, which is protected as the canines are considered to be the purest dingo tribe in Eastern Australia, despite not being threatened or endangered. He doesn’t think the fire will hit the dingoes directly, but it will likely reduce access to food sources.
The fire started in the northern part of the island. According to forest ecologist Grahame Applegate of the University of the Sunshine Coast, these are primarily so-called wallum forests, which contain more fire-tolerant species such as banksias and myrtle. Applegate has rediscovered historic vegetation patches that were created decades ago by park authorities in the island’s ecosystems to monitor changes in these habitats. He says that the abundance of data on vegetation changes over time from these plots will allow the study of the effects of fire and the subsequent regeneration of flora if the fire affects them. The University of the Sunshine Coast operates a research center on the island, which is further south of the fire front.
Applegate says he is concerned that hot north winds could drive the fire south and into the more rainforest blackbutt eucalyptus forests, where large amounts of fuel need to be burned. “Once you start getting those high amounts of fuel, things can change dramatically,” he says. Firefighters have burned back to protect the island’s towns and depths bomb planes are being used to bring the fire under control.
A dingo (Canis Dingo) rest on the foredunes on K’gari (Fraser Island). The iconic K’gari dingo population has less genetic diversity and is genetically different from their mainland counterparts.
The rainforests in southern Queensland have long been considered largely fire-resistant due to their moisture, says Christine Hosking, landscape ecologist and conservation biologist at the University of Queensland. “But that is now changing with climate change: The vegetation is so much hotter and so much drier. . . So things that traditionally would not have burned burn. “
And while many of the K’gari-Fraser Island plant species are fire adapted, Conroy warns that a fire of this magnitude on an island reduces the opportunities for species to either escape or repopulate landscapes from nearby populations after the fire.
“Although the northern half of the island will recover in some ways, the appearance of these ecosystems may change significantly in the future,” he says.