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Wildfires Burn Fragile Ecosystem on Australia's Fraser Island

Wildfires Burn Fragile Ecosystem on Australia's Fraser Island
Wildfires are seen burning out of control on November 30, 2020 on Fraser Island, Australia. Queensland Fire and Emergency Services / Getty Images

The world's largest sand island has been on fire for the past six weeks due to a campfire, and Australia's firefighters have yet to prevent flames from destroying the fragile ecosystem.

The wildfires on Fraser Island, also called by its Indigenous name K'gari, have burned almost 200,000 acres of its unique habitat, including large sand dunes, swamps and rainforests. Fraser Island is near Brisbane on the northeastern coast, where dingos, swamp wallabies, sugar gliders and more than 60 reptile species call the island home. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1992.

Several tourists visiting the island had to be evacuated as conditions worsened, Reuters reported.

"I think it's frustrating for everybody, the fact that a campfire has started this fire. Having the impact that it has had, it started in a very, very remote part of the island… really difficult to access," Queensland Fire and Emergency Services deputy commissioner Mike Wassing told CNN affiliate Nine News, according to Reuters.

Since Saturday fire crews have dropped more than 200,000 gallons of water and flame retardant on the island, Reuters added.

The Guardian reported that crews are mainly addressing the problem from above, focusing on key ecological areas and sites that are important to the Butchulla Aboriginal people, who have called the island home for thousands of years.

However, fighting sand fires is difficult, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services assistant commissioner Gary McCormack told The Guardian. He explained how water quickly drained from the sand floor, even when dropped from above. Ground conditions weren't any better due to a lack of firebreaks.

"Unfortunately the current conditions are not conducive to extinguishment," McCormack said.

The fires are approaching the Valley of Giants, a tourist attraction known for its 1,000-year-old trees.

Researcher Dr. Gabriel Conroy, a conservation biologist at the University of the Sunshine Coast whose work focuses on Fraser Island, took a student group there last week.

"A northerly wind had kicked in and it was other-worldly with ash falling down on the students," he told The Guardian. "There's a sense of panic on the island."

Conroy explained that traditional fire practices by the Butchulla people were suppressed more than a century ago, and European loggers altered the island's ecology. Prior to this, the Butchulla had burned smaller fires on the island for thousands of years in order to prevent more widespread ones.

"This is a very large and very hot fire for this island. It's a big fire and it's the wrong kind of fire," Conroy said. He added, "It's a catastrophe. Even ecosystems that are meant to burn don't bounce back from widespread hot fires. It can be beyond their capacity to bounce back."

According to CNN, Queensland's Bureau of Meteorology warned that an extreme heat wave and strong winds, forecast for the next couple of days, would likely worsen the fires.

The current fires may be the start of a harsh and long fire season, and are already drawing comparison to the devastating wildfires Australia experienced in early 2020, where more than 37 million acres were destroyed, three billion animals killed, and 33 people died.

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