Australian firefighters save rare, prehistoric trees from wildfires

Specialist firefighters have saved the world’s last remaining wild stand of a prehistoric tree from wildfires that razed forests west of Syd Credit: NSW National Parks and Wildfire Service via AP

Specialist firefighters battling the wildfires in Australia have saved a cluster of trees that "outlived the dinosaurs".

The collection of less than 200 Wollemi Pines is the world's last remaining wild stand of the prehistoric tree.

A team of firefighters winched from helicopters saved the trees in a remote gorge in the Blue Mountains just a week before a massive wildfire hit the area.

  • Matt Kean, New South Wales Environment Minister describes the rescue mission:

Establishing an irrigation system to keep the so-called dinosaur trees moist, firefighters then pumped water each day from the gorge as the fires edged closer.

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

New South Wales Environment Minister, Matt Kean, described it as a "military-style operation".

"We winched staff into the area to make sure that we were doing everything we could to protect the trees and fortunately it paid off".

The exact location of the cluster of Wollemi Pine remains a secret to help preserve them. Credit: NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service

National Parks and Wildlife Service Director, David Crust, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation the trees are "a particularly important species".

"The fact that this is the only place in the world where they exist and they exist in such small numbers is really significant,” he added.

The Wollemi Pine had only been seen in its fossilised form and was thought long extinct before the cluster in the Blue Mountains was found in 1994.

Parts of the gorge around the trees were scorched by the fire. Credit: NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service

The fire that threatened the area was brought under control this week after razing more than 510,000 hectares (1.26 million acres).

According to Mr Crust, the fire has also destroyed 90% of the 5,000-hectare (12,400-acre) Wollemi National Park in which the trees grow.

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

A sapling grows safe from the fires, though a few of the larger trees were singed. Credit: NSW National Parks and Wildfire Service via AP

The Wollemi’s survival is one of the few positive stories to emerge from the unprecedented wildlife crisis in south-east 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 (25.5 million acres), mostly in New South Wales state.

But the fire danger has been diminished by rain this week in several areas with the first green buds of regrowth already emerging in some blackened forests following rain.