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Australia Firefighters Save the Only Wild Prehistoric Wollemi Pines on Earth
The Wollemi pines once grew widely across Australia from more than 100 to 60 million years ago, The Washington Post reported. But now less than 200 remain in the wild, in a national park 125 miles northwest of Sydney.
"It's something like the Opera House of the natural world," Richard Kingsford, director of the Center for Ecosystem Science at the University of New South Wales (NSW), told The Sydney Morning Herald. "Losing it would have added to the catastrophe we have seen elsewhere."
Historic wildfires in Australia this spring and summer have killed at least 28 people and more than a billion animals. Heavy rainfall in the last 24 hours has brought some relief to the the hard-hit states of NSW and Victoria, CNN reported.
But during the worst of the crisis, the NSW government knew it had to protect the ancient trees growing in a ravine in Wollemi National Park, so the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) firefighters and the NSW Rural Fire Service worked together to carry out an "unprecedented environmental protection mission," NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said in a statement Wednesday.
"Wollemi National Park is the only place in the world where these trees are found in the wild and, with less than 200 left, we knew we needed to do everything we could to save them," he said.
Fire retardant was first dropped over the area from air tankers, and firefighters were lowered from helicopters into the ravine to set up an irrigation system.
Firefighters returned when the flames approached the grove to operate the irrigation system. Helicopters also dropped water on the edges of the fire to protect the trees, according to The Sydney Morning Herald.
Much of Wollemi National Park was destroyed by the Gospers Mountain fire, and, for four days towards the end of 2019, officials feared the trees might have been destroyed too.
"We just waited with bated breath," Kean told The Sydney Morning Herald.
But when smoke cleared, it became clear that most of the trees had survived.
Wollemi pines aren't actually pines, The Washington Post explained. They are in fact a type of conifer that has bubbly-looking bark and can grow to be 130 feet.
They were thought to be extinct until 1994, when David Noble, an officer with the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service, discovered an unfamiliar tree species when rappelling in the park, NPR reported.
Noble did not know what he'd found, and the samples he brought back stumped biologists and botanists. It was only when he returned with scientists a month later that the mystery was solved.
"When the pines were discovered in 1994, you might as well have found a living dinosaur," Kean told The Sydney Morning Herald.
Their exact location has been kept a secret since then to protect them from contamination, and the firefighters' efforts to save them were kept similarly secret to protect their location.
Kean expressed hope that what Australian firefighters had done for the trees, Australia as a whole could do for the planet.
"We'll always have bush fires in this country. There's no doubt about that. But there's no doubt also that the severity of this year's bush fires is not like anything we've ever seen. And that's due to climate change," Kean told NPR. "There's a huge opportunity for us to lead the way in terms of tackling climate change and help the rest of the world decarbonize. There's no better country on the planet better placed to do that than Australia."
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