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Scientists Fear Sheer Size Of Australia Bushfires Will Slow Ecological Recovery


Heavy rains have brought an end to many of the out-of-control bushfires that blackened millions of acres in Australia. In the state of New South Wales, officials said that all fires - some that have been burning for half a year - are now contained. But what about the recovery? Parts of Australia typically experience a bushfire season. And ecosystems have evolved to cope. But scientists fear that this time they won't bounce back. We're joined now by Lesley Hughes, a professor of biology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Good morning.

LESLEY HUGHES: Good morning.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: As I mentioned, fires are a part of some of Australia's ecosystems. And some species repopulate relatively quickly, right? Why do you think that might not happen this time?

HUGHES: Well, the really different thing about this time is a huge areal extent of these fires. And the other thing is that they've been very, very intense, very, very severe. So that'll affect the recovery in a couple of ways. Firstly, the areal extent means that it's a very long way from intact bushland for animals and seeds to come, to repopulate those areas. So that will be one thing that will slow things down. And the significance of the severity is that if you get a fairly mild or cool fire, a lot of things actually survive through it. So lots of trees will re-sprout. Things that are underground and seeds in the soil will come back relatively quickly.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Can you give me some examples of how plant and animal species regularly survive fires?

HUGHES: Yes. There are quite a lot of eucalypts that have the ability to re-sprout from their trunk after a fire or re-sprout from their base. But that relies on the bark that surround the trunk protecting the inner tissue from high temperatures. So if you get a very, very hot fire and that protective layer is burnt through, it means that the inner tissues that might have otherwise survived and been able to re-sprout are also killed. And that means that the whole tree is killed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: For the animals that survived the fires, what's their outlook like?

HUGHES: Well, the outlook in many areas is pretty grim. What a lot of the wildlife recovery efforts have been addressing is to try to get food and water into those areas. But some areas, of course, are very remote. But there have been food stations set up in different ways. But clearly, the extent of the fires, which, you know, is over probably about 30 million acres, means that not every patch is going to be supplied with food and water.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Professor Hughes, you have dedicated your life's work to the study of biology in Australia. How are you viewing this terrible thing that's happened?

HUGHES: Well, I think like every citizen of Australia, it's been a quite apocalyptic event to live through. I think we've been warning about these sorts of events, in some cases, for 30 years. So when it finally does happen like this, I think most of us are not surprised. But as human beings, we're still shocked. So what I'm the most worried about now is the number of threatened species that may have gone extinct over the summer. And we don't know how many that is. But there are lots of species that are listed as threatened because they existed only in a very small pocket, you know, in a very restricted range. And many of those species have had their entire range burned. And it's yet to be seen whether any of them have survived.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Professor Hughes, one last question. I am wondering if you feel that because of these catastrophic fires, maybe this time, people will pay attention.

HUGHES: Well, look. I - people are paying attention. And the public of Australia has been paying attention for a long time. What we actually need, of course, is for our federal politicians to be in step with those community attitudes. We are seeing some quite large fracture lines appearing in the coalition - that is a conservative coalition between the pro-fossil-fuel forces and the pro-climate-action forces. And we're all watching and waiting at the moment. But it's certainly the case that the Australian public, on the whole, wants a lot more action.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Lesley Hughes, professor of biology at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, thank you very much.

HUGHES: Thanks, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.