Updated: Jan 24
A heatwave with multiple days over 40 degrees Celsius hit Central and North Queensland in November 2018. I felt the hot air on my face, and the temporary panic as it takes your breath away when you breathed in to deeply. The heatwave spread across the land bringing with it the flames. The smell of bushfires impregnated the air, and the smoke made the sky hazy. The bushfires had started, and were taking with it parts of forests in Central and North Queensland.
One of the most affected areas in Central Queensland was Eungella National Park. The residents of Eungella and Finch Hatton faced a scary few days, and were eventually ordered to evacuate the area as the fires closed in towards the end of November. The red orange flames could be seen in the distance, the smoke covered the sky at night turning the atmosphere into any eerie halo of orange. The fire was spreading fast, taking everything in its way, the forest, houses and sugarcane plantations.
Heatwave hit Central and North Queensland last week of November 2018.
The heatwave was followed by a multitude of Bushfires that escalated across Queensland also during the last week of November.
Residents in Eungella and the surrounding area were ordered to evacuate the area.
Many spot fires were be seen on either side of the road in Eungella-Mackay road in Pioneer Valley.
On friday night (30/11/18) a rescue chopper evacuated ten people from Eungella.
Heatwave and sea breeze worsened the conditions.
Eungella National Park was on flames, the flames roared and could be seen in satellite images.
A 737 water bomber was sent to Eungella on Friday afternoon to slow the fire's advance.
On December the 3rd an article on abc reports that the fire caused “110,000 hectares of the national park and surrounds to be blackened - ABC news.”
We have visited Eungella National park previously and were immediately captivated by the beauty of the rainforest. Bushfires and rainforests don't mix and are a rare event, so the news about the fires struck me in a way I cannot describe, perhaps because I feel connected to the rainforest in a special way. Sometimes, I feel like I need to talk for the trees (like the Lorax in Dr. Seuss's book), I feel sometimes, that they need people to defend the ancient trees like the ones in the rainforest of Australia. During the holiday break, I decided to set up an expedition to Eungella to find out what tracks were affected after the fire. I took my family with me and my partner, the amazing photographer of this website.
I am the Lorax, I speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues - Dr. Seuss
We are a family of four, and are very passionate about going outdoors, we have taken our children on walks and hikes since they were little. When we moved to Townsville in 2015, and started exploring the area we were flabbergasted with the beauty of this region. Its beauty, inspired us to become whisperers of this land, and nature photographers. We take our children to walking trails and explore the great outdoors, rainforest and waterfalls. We both have a background in biological science, and in 2018, we created a website outdoorhobbits.com where we share our walks with other parents not only to encourage them to take their kids outside, but also to educate people about science, especially about biodiversity. By using the power of creative writing, and art, we talk about the land, the trees and the animals.
Australia is home to a very diverse and unique rainforest ecosystem and although the rainforest only represent a tiny bit of the global rainforest in area, Australian rainforests are unique because they hold a huge amount of biodiversity. Some of the trees are ancient and vestiges of what it was once an ancient forest that covered Northern Australia. The rainforest of Australia, like all rainforests, are moist most of the time, but also dry somewhat during the dry season. Thus they have a unique microclimate and in them you can find a multitude of endemic species. The largest area of rainforest in Australia are the in North Queensland in the Wet tropics, in what is now largely a World Heritage Area (what's not is predominately sugarcane....sweet). There are patches of rainforest all over Australia, and in Queensland one of our favourite rainforests is in Eungella National Park. Ever since we visited this forest in 2016, we were captivated by the hidden beauty among the hills of this mountain escape.
The Eungella rainforest is quite unique because it lies in a region which is usually dry. As you drive on the road Mackay-Eungella, across the valley, you see the huge expanse of sugarcane plantations on both sides of the road. The Mackay region is a big producer of sugarcane and there are more than one hundred sugarcane farms in the area.
Driving from Mackay way to Eungella starts off with quite a monotonous landscape; cows and horses here and there (the common fauna of the road). Drive a bit further up the road to the town of Pioneer and you start noticing the green hills in the distance that are hiding a tropical rainforest. The Eungella National Park extends for 52.900 hectares, from Mt. Beatrice to a small area of Finch Hatton.
At the top of the hill, 1259 m above sea level and 80 km inland (west) of Mackay, lies the town of Eungella, with a population of 194 inhabitants. The town is a common destination for people in Mackay and surrounding towns to cool down from the unrelenting heat in the coastal lowlands. The view from the main lookout is amazing, from there you can see the valley in the lowlands, various lakes and the mountains that rise into the sky that surround the valley.
The area offers several walks for all kind of fitness levels. Some are short, others are longer. The short ones give you a snapshot of the rainforest and allows you to spot platypus which is a great experience for children (and adult too :) ). The longer walks are more for experienced hikers (see the great Mackay walk). Closer to the base of the mountains before ascending to Eungella, there are the walks to Finch Hatton gorge and the amazing waterfalls.
After the fire
So, as I said previously, we decided to visit the area after the bushfire in November 2018 to investigate the damage. As we passed Pioneer valley, we noticed the patches of brown landscape on both sides of the road, across sugarcane plantation on the valley and all the way up the mountains. Driving through the Eungella-Mackay road, the damage areas became more extensive, and were prominent when driving up the steep road leading to the town of Eungella.
We also drove on the Dalrymple road to investigate the area (This road heads north from the Eungella township and ends at a farm gate, 11 km later). The Dalrymple road area is a patchwork of dairy farms with rolling green pasture and patches of rainforest. There was quite a lot of bushfire damage in the area, which contrasted with the rich green new growth of pastures that happened when rain came after the fires. Some of the house in this area are inside the forest, I can't image how horrifying must have been witnessing the bushfire for the locals.
Pease's lookout, Dalrymple road, Eungella National Park. Photo taken
on the 31st of December 2018.
Areas we visited with damaged rainforest.
Wishing pool (read in our website)
The other two large walks between Sky-window and Broken river
Granite Bend track
The rainforest discovery trail, the Granite Bend trail were fine. The trees were green and thriving, although we did noticed a lot of dry matter on the ground, and ferns that were brown, it seemed that the forest had a long dry period, but was now well watered. Confirming this, the locals told us that the wet season in 2017/2018 was a bit of a non event, and was followed by the hotter than usual dry season, and thus the Eungella area had been dryer than normal before the bushfires came.
Sky Window short circuit
Extensive bushfire damage could be seen while walking the sky-window short circuit. This track allows you to contemplate amazing views, which now include the extensive fire damage surrounding the Mackay-Eungella road in the valley below. The trail seems to be divided between the brown/black side on the valley side which is fire damaged and the green colours of the surviving trees on the mountain side. Luckily the bushfire didn't cross the trail to the other side of the forest. Good job fire fighters.
The Wishing pool
We also walked along the wishing pool track on the 1st of January 2019. The damage was very evident on this trail. During the first few 100 meters of the trail, the forest is as green as can be, dense, dark and lush. However, further along the trail the impact of the bushfire is clearly evident. The rainforest turned from green to brown and black once more, with a lot of light coming through to the ground, no longer blocked by a dense canopy. The sight of enormous (and probably ancient) trees collapsed on the ground sadden me. We found massive staghorns ferns on the ground, which collapsed alongside their host trees (see the picture below). Overall, like what we saw in other rainforest areas, the fire damage was patchy, and tree deaths continued to occur well after the fire past, as the ground was littered with brown leaves amongst dead tree stands. There was also a large patch of rainforest near the river which was not burnt out, which was good to see.
Images of the Wishing pool trail at Eungella National Park taken
on the 1st of January 2019. The brown and green sides of the trail.
We hope for more rain and successful recovery
The region has never seen a fire of this magnitude. So what cause such a big fire? It is uncertain. However, it is likely that a number of factors contributed. For one, cyclone Debbie hit the region in 2017 which would have increased the amount of fuel on the forest floor. This was followed by a dryer than usual 2017/2018 wet season and a hotter 2018, slowing the breakdown of organic matter on the forest floor, and drying it out. Overall, these factors appeared to be enough to tip the area over the edge and promote the incursion of the destructive fires into the rainforest. So when the heatwave came, with temperatures reaching over 40 degrees, anything; a smouldering cigarette butt, a lighting strike, a piece of broken glass concentrating the sun's rays; would be enough to start a fire which would quickly become uncontrollable with flames quickly spreading across the land. After the fire, it was calculated that 110,00 hectares of the National Park were affected.
The rainforest at Eungella will take a long time to recover. Will they fully recover? Who knows, but if heatwaves and recent weather events start becoming the norm (as predicted if global warming continues to scale-up each year), then I fear not. Predicted scenarios predict hotter weather and more sporadic rainfall which favours more bushfires in the region. Over the centuries, the drying of Australia has resulted in the huge swathes of rainforest being replaced by more open dry sclerophyll eucalypt forests. More recently, habitat degradation has led to the invasion of areas by weed species that can spread and have a long term effect on the ecosystem. Is this the future of our marvelous rainforest ecosystems that have taken millions of years to evolve?
Thanks for reading!
Written by Sofia Fortunato (also known Miss Sophie F.) and edited by Sam Penglase.
Photos: Sam Penglase and Sofia Fortunato.