Today marks the one year anniversary of the Pinery Fire in South Australia. As bushfires go, this was a massive one. The inferno burnt 82,000 hectares, killed 72,000 livestock, destroyed 500 buildings including 91 homes and claimed two lives. With significant events following, erosion, dust storms and floods, how can the land heal?
It was a Wednesday. I remember it well. As I drove down Penrice hill heading back towards Nuriootpa, I stopped and took a photo of a plume of smoke in the distance. 20mins later I was evacuating my workplace. As I locked up, I took another photo. This time the sky, from horizon to horizon was completely shrouded in pillows of grey, pink and red. Ash was falling from the sky. I gathered the family, went home and put the sprinklers on.
Thankfully the fire never made it to my place. However many many families and the rural communities they belonged to were not so fortunate. The damage and destruction – unsurmountable. I’ve spoken to stoic farmers, months down the track, who relive the devastation like it was yesterday. Healing takes time.
A few weeks back I visited Pengilly Scrub (Mudla Wirra), south of Wasleys in the fire scar. It is a remnant patch of open mallee woodland about 20 hectares in size. It’s an island in a sea of farmland and vitally important for the survival of many fauna and plant species. The volunteers and others charged with managing this patch were confounded by the intensity and severity of the fire. With 82,000 hectares burnt – where would the animals go?
On my visit, discoveries were made. A spider orchid (Caladenia sp.) here and there. A species of hop bush (Dodonaea sp.) never recorded there before. Regeneration of native pines, groundcovers and wattles (Acacia sp.). Bird life was returning and although the perches were further apart than before, signs of normality were returning.
Is it really dead?
Back in September I took a photo of a patch of charred Eucalypts just off the Sturt Highway. Just a snapshot of some of the thousands of standing gums burnt in the fire scar. I’m sure most people driving past would have written them off as dead. Another reminder of that horrific day back in November. I’d been watching these trees for signs of life. And soon enough there it was. New growth visible from a distance at 110 km/hr, so I pulled over for a closer look.
Epicormic growth is the name given to new shoots from an epicormic bud which lies underneath the bark of the tree. For the most part they are dormant. It seems to start from the main truck of the tree and slowly working its way towards the outer extremities of the branches.
When a Eucalypt is stressed, damaged or experiences fire, epicormic buds start to shoot. In other words – it’s pretty hard to kill a gum tree. Many of our native Australian have adapted to fire and reply on it to assist germination. Banksias’ and Hakea’s store seed in fruits that can hang on the shrubs for years until heat from a fire opens them. Acacia’s (Wattle’s) have a hardened seed coating which upon heating is weakened allowing germination to take place.
Recently I caught up with Chris Steels a local twitcher (bird watcher). He told me about the Pinery Foreground Bird Box Project. The aim of this project – to put back habitat where now there is none. Along with the South Australian Birding Group, Chris and an amazing array of supporters have built 80 bird and bat boxes and installed them all over the area affected by the Bushfire. http://chrissteelesbirding.blogspot.com.au
On their Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/groups/574454082708486/ is a picture of an owlet nightjar (Aegotheles chrisoptus) chick recently hatched in one of the boxes. As Chris says on Facebook (insert happy dance here!).
I met the founders of SA Bushfire Garden Revival at a native plant giveaway day at the Barossa Bushgardens. This group coordinate the distribution of plants to victims of the fire whose gardens were decimated. Their ‘Green Therapy’ is well recognised and their program has grown in leaps and bounds. I could write much more about the many community projects that sprung up in the aftermath of the Bushfire. All of which possess common themes of generosity and compassion.
Many hands make light work, and in the aftermath of such a devastating event, it is encouraging to seek out examples of social and ecological re-generation.
The healing has started – a positive keepsake.