Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

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.

Rise and Resist activist group marched together to demand climate and racial justice. Steve Sanchez / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Alexandria Villaseñor

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

My journey to becoming an activist began in late 2018. During a trip to California to visit family, the Camp Fire broke out. At the time, it was the most devastating and destructive wildfire in California history. Thousands of acres and structures burned, and many lives were lost. Since then, California's wildfires have accelerated: This past year, we saw the first-ever "gigafire," and by the end of 2020, more than four million acres had burned.

Read More Show Less
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced a pair of climate-related secretarial orders on Friday, April 16. U.S. Department of the Interior

By Jessica Corbett

As the Biden administration reviews the U.S. government's federal fossil fuels program and faces pressure to block any new dirty energy development, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland won praise from environmentalists on Friday for issuing a pair of climate-related secretarial orders.

Read More Show Less
David Attenborough narrates "The Year Earth Changed," premiering globally April 16 on Apple TV+. Apple

Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.

Read More Show Less

By Michael Svoboda

For April's bookshelf we take a cue from Earth Day and step back to look at the bigger picture. It wasn't climate change that motivated people to attend the teach-ins and protests that marked that first observance in 1970; it was pollution, the destruction of wild lands and habitats, and the consequent deaths of species.

Read More Show Less
An Amazon.com Inc. worker walks past a row of vans outside a distribution facility on Feb. 2, 2021 in Hawthorne, California. PATRICK T. FALLON / AFP via Getty Images

Over the past year, Amazon has significantly expanded its warehouses in Southern California, employing residents in communities that have suffered from high unemployment rates, The Guardian reports. But a new report shows the negative environmental impacts of the boom, highlighting its impact on low-income communities of color across Southern California.

Read More Show Less