K’gari (Fraser Island) – the fire and the aftermath

On October 14 campers in the vicinity of Ngkala Rocks in the North of the Island left an unextinguished campfire at their campsite. There was a raging South Easter blowing. The coals reignited, fanned by wind. The fire spread into the adjacent vegetation. That was the start of the calamity.


The strong wind drove the fire across the island and within a day and a half it had reached the Western side of the island. As it proceeded, it left behind numerous fires burning in wilderness country not able to be accessed. By the time it was drawn to the attention of QPWS, it had extended well inland.


The wind then swung to the North/North West and blew the fire down the island, breaking up into several fronts and burning over half the island, before it was eventually controlled by a huge fire fighting effort involving 90 odd fire fighters and approximately 70 water bombing aircraft, both fixed wing and chopper, and finally the advent of rain on 8th December.


During these 8 weeks the wind blew from every conceivable direction and ranged from gale forced at times to perfectly calm. The fires were very variable over the time and the resultant impact on the landscape was equally variable. At times the fires were extremely hot, totally engulfing and vegetation and doing lasting damage while at other times it just crept along the surface burning the accumulated material but not extending into the canopy of trees and shrubs.


Add to this the terrain is extremely varied, ranging from high steep dunes to large areas of undulating country. Similarly the vegetation types are incredibly varied, ranging from majestic complex rainforests featuring gigantic satinay trees, through to various sclerophyll forests that contain a range of tree species including Eucalypts, Banksias, Casuarinas and many more. Then there are a range of heathland types and importantly wetlands including the incredible patterned fens. Each of these communities reacts differently to fire, adding to the complexity of the impact of this fire.


Some of these plant communities have evolved to be fire tolerant and in fact benefit from periodic burns. This is the case for the heathlands and sclerophyll ecosystems, while the rainforests do not tolerate fire.


All this complexity means the impact of the fire will be very variable. Some areas can be expected to recover quite well while others will be severely damaged.


Our greatest concern was that the fire would engulf rainforests as happened at Binna Burra earlier this year.  From all the reports I have received this did not happen. It seems that in limited places the fire got into rainforest areas but was restricted to the floor of the forest and did not extend into the canopy. This is very good news.


Most of the fire fighting effort was concentrated on saving lives and property at The Cathedrals, Kingfisher Bay Resort and Happy Valley. This effort saved the day for these places which FIDO is very pleased about. It was an excellent effort. However, the damage to the natural environment is considerable.


To date FIDO has not had the opportunity to get onto the island. We have a request into QPWS for a joint inspection. We recognise that they will be extremely stretched at this time. If we can’t arrange a joint inspection soon we will send a FIDO delegation to the island for an on ground inspection.


There is considerable well placed community concern about the impact of the fire on wildlife. The impact can be expected to have been considerable and be ongoing.


K’gari does not have koalas. Koalas attract the vast majority of publicity in the aftermath of bush fires. There are a very limited number of Eastern Grey kangaroos and some swamp wallabies. It is expected that these larger animals, along with the iconic K’gari Wongarie (dingos) will have been able to avoid the fires. Not so the smaller creatures in the burnt areas. It can be expected that the smaller marsupials and rodents, reptiles and some small birds will have suffered, but this is very hard to assess. The likelihood of injured smaller animals being found is very low. We may never know the extent of the impact.


The big questions:


This fire event on K’gari is unprecedented in both duration and magnitude. It occurred at the time of an unseasonal extreme dry period. It begs the question – “Was this abnormal dryness just an example of normal cyclical climate variation? Or is it just another example of a much greater phenomena that has seen a number of unprecedented highly damaging fires in protected areas and across the country of recent times? Is it the result of man induced climate change?”


The K’gari fire makes this the seventh World Heritage property in Australia to be affected by fire in the last year. They include:


  • Gondwana Rainforests here in Qld (including Binna Burra) and over the border in NSW, which were 54% burnt according to the 2020 Royal Commission into Natural Disaster Arrangements,


  • Greater Blue Mountains area west of Sydney, which was 82% burnt,


  • Budj Bim Cultural landscape in Victoria,


  • Stirling Range National Park in West Australia


As well, 5 RAMSAR Wetlands were affected by fire last year.


The late John Sinclair in his later years examined the rainfall records over recent decades from Double Island Point. They pointed to a significant decrease in annual rainfall over that period.


Is this an indication that K’gari is drying? Is this going to result in increased fire activity on K’gari into the future? If so, what impact will this have on the island’s vegetation and wildlife? What impact will it have on the famous perched lakes of K’gari?


These questions can only be answered by a comprehensive research effort. We need answers to these question.


K’gari is world Heritage listed. The Federal and State Governments need to take their commitment to the World Heritage Estate seriously and urgently fund this research.


Peter Shooter

President, Fraser Island Defenders Organisation (FIDO)