Report by KIERAN FINNANE, photos by FIONA WALSH
UPDATE, 28 February 2018, 3.21pm: Fire service did cut the burning tree in an unprecedented move to save it. (See below.)
The photos tell much of the story: a fire that smouldered for days despite several attempts to put it out; the trees that have survived thanks to those efforts – one, the oldest, only just; buffel-busters whose efforts clearing buffel from the base of the trees have contributed to their survival; the black-footed rock wallabies looking down on the destruction from the exposed rock face above.
“They will be more vulnerable now to predation by dogs and cats,” says ecologist and tree preservation campaigner Fiona Walsh, hoping that pet owners in the area will keep their dogs on a leash and their cats at home.
Below: Sue Morrish of Alice Springs Landcare.
Below: Rosalie Breen, hoe at the ready.
The fire began last Wednesday evening; Dr Walsh learned about it the following evening. Going to the site on Friday morning, the fire brigade had obviously attended but some spots were still smouldering, which she dealt with.
However, returning on Sunday morning, Dr Walsh discovered the old river red gum still smoking (photo second from bottom). She made 16 phone calls, some for help, some to try to establish who owns this land on the edge of Alice Springs suburbia (you can see St Philip’s College through the trees on the far bank), and who therefore should take responsibility for fully extinguishing it.
Despite the efforts of the fire brigade and her own, clearly not enough had been done to take care of the well-known problem of smouldering embers in the hollow trunks of river red gums.
Among Dr Walsh’s phone calls was one to Mayor Damien Ryan. It turns out that the land in question is outside council’s area of responsibility in the river corridor. That ends 300 metres north of Schwarz Crescent causeway. The fire site was a bit further north than that, burning up onto the western flanks of Spencer Hill, says Dr Walsh.
To his credit however, Mayor Ryan went to the location and called 000. The message back was that they had already attended, he told the Town Council meeting on Monday night. He insisted the fire was still burning. Some 20 minutes later two fire-fighting vehicles arrived.
In Dr Walsh’s view the tree, which was smoking out of two chimney-trunks, needed more drastic action – removal of the burning limbs. Mike Gillam, another tree preservation campaigner who at times has taken such matters into his own hands, agreed, but the challenge was bigger than he had the equipment for.
Mayor Ryan says council crews never undertake such action, as a matter of work health and safety.
Neither do the fire brigade, says John Kleeman, Senior Station Fire Officer in Alice Springs.
However, someone did. When Dr Walsh returned to the site on Sunday afternoon, the two burning trunks of the triple-trunked tree had been cut away with a chainsaw.
End result: tree much diminished but still alive.
Meanwhile, Dr Walsh has learned that NT Parks and Widlife Commission has responsibility for the patch of land concerned.
She credits local buffel-busters, Sue Morrish and Rosalie Breen, with having limited the damage caused by the fire. The area is densely infested with buffel-grass but they had cleared it way from the base of trees.
Now, as the extreme conditions we’ve been experiencing are tailing off, is the time to do more work and planning for fire prevention, says Dr Walsh.
She says it is urgent that the body the government has convened – The Lhere Mparntwe Todd River Working Group – starts meeting. She has been invited to be a member, as has council’s Director of Technical Services, Scott Allen. It’s understood that Dr Ken Johnson will be in the chair, and other members will include representatives of the Arid Lands Environment Centre, and of Parks and Wildlife. When expressions of interest were called for this group, the government specified that at least one member be an Aboriginal person able to speak about, and advise on, Arrernte cultural values.
UPDATE, 28 February 2018, 3.21pm: When Senior Station Fire Officer in Alice Springs John Kleeman spoke to the Alice News yesterday, saying that the fire service never cuts trees, he had yet to speak to the member in charge of the crew who attended the fire on Sunday.
He has since learned that the member in charge made the “unprecedented” decision to remove one of the burning trunks of the tree. Hesitancy to do so in the past has been related to sensitivities around sacred trees and difficulty in knowing which ones are sacred and which not.
In this instance Mr Kleeman says the fire-fighter’s “quick thinking” saved the tree. The trunk had “chimneyed” and it was not possible to dowse the fire inside. To remove the trunk with a chainsaw was the only chance he had of saving the tree.
He says the fire in the area seems to have been ignited at different times over a few days. It is difficult to “point the finger” at anyone, but there continues to be illegal camping in the area, which can lead to problems for everyone – “traditional owners, us, the council”.
Save our trees: reduce Buffel, call 000, collaborate by FIONA WALSH
500 year old red gums are being lost through neglect – but the trees can’t speak by MIKE GILLAM
Report by KIERAN FINNANE, photos by FIONA WALSH