By Brigit Katz, Smithsonianmag.com
Since devastating wildfires began raging across Australia last year, news emerging from the country has often been dire: 15.6 million acres of land burned, at least 28 people killed, more than one billion animals estimated dead. But this week, there was a heartening development. According to Adam Morton of the Guardian, firefighters have successfully saved Australia’s groves of Wollemi pines, a species of prehistoric tree known to survive only in the Wollemi National Park in New South Wales.
Once widespread across Australia, Wollemi pines reached their peak abundance some 34 to 65 million years ago. As Australia drifted northward and its climate cooled and dried, the trees began a steady decline; today, just 200 Wollemi pines grow on the northwestern outskirts of Sydney, in a deep, remote gorge bounded by steep sandstone cliffs.
When the Gospers Mountain Fire, a “mega-blaze” that has been burning since October, began encroaching on the trees’ last stand, “we knew we needed to do everything we could to save them,” says Matt Kean, New South Wales’ minister for energy and environment. A critical rescue operation was launched by experts with the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service.