World’s Largest Sand Island Devastated by Wildfire
World’s Largest Sand Island Devastated by Wildfire

World’s Largest Sand Island Devastated by Wildfire

An illegal campfire sparked a blaze that has burned half of the unique Fraser Island off Australia’s East coast.

Bianca Nogrady
Dec 9, 2020

ABOVE: Fire on K’gari-Fraser Island
QUEENSLAND FIRE AND EMERGENCY SERVICES

Wildfire has scorched around half of Fraser Island, a World Heritage site off the East coast of Australia, after starting from an illegal campfire. There are concerns that the sand island’s unique rainforest ecosystems could be threatened as weather worsens.

Also known as K’gari by the local Butchulla people, who hold native title over the island, Fraser Island is the world’s largest sand island—76 miles long—but it is also home to rainforests and other ecosystems, including numerous freshwater dune lakes.

While some of the plant species need fire to regenerate, ecologist Gabriel Conroy of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Queensland says he is worried about the island’s fauna, from microbial communities all the way up to the island’s distinctive—and sometimes notorious—native dogs known as dingoes, which Conroy studies.

“They’re very adaptable feeders but you’re talking about fifty percent of the island’s ecosystems and habitat wiped out in one hit, that’s significant,” he says. Conroy has been studying the genetics of the K’gari-Fraser Island dingo population, which is protected because the canines are considered the purest strain of dingo in eastern Australia, although they are not threatened or endangered. He says he doesn’t believe the fire will directly impact dingoes but will likely reduce access to food sources.

The fire started in the northern part of the island, in what forest ecologist Grahame Applegate of University of the Sunshine Coast says are mostly so-called Wallum forests containing more fire-tolerant species such as banksias and myrtles. Applegate has been rediscovering historical vegetation plots set up across the island’s ecosystems decades ago by park authorities to monitor changes in those habitats. He says the wealth of data on vegetation changes over time from those plots will enable the study of the effect of fire and subsequent regeneration of the flora, if the fire does affect them. The University of the Sunshine Coast operates a research centre on the island, which is further south of the fire front.

Applegate says he is concerned that hot northerly winds could push the fire south and into the more rainforest-type blackbutt eucalyptus forests, where there are large amounts of fuel to burn. “Once you start to get those high fuel loads, then things can change dramatically,” he says. Firefighters have been backburning in an effort to protect towns on the island, and water-bombing aircraft are being used to try to bring the fire under control.

A dingo (Canis dingo) resting on the foredunes on K’gari (Fraser Island). The iconic K’gari dingo population is lower in genetic diversity and has become genetically differentiated from its mainland counterparts.
CODY JAMES

The rainforests of southern Queensland have long been thought largely resistant to fire because of the level of moisture in them, says Christine Hosking, a landscape ecologist and conservation biologist at the University of Queensland. “But this is all changing now with climate change: the vegetation is so much hotter and so much drier . . . so things that wouldn’t have traditionally burned are burning.”

And while many of K’gari-Fraser Island’s plant species are fire-adapted, Conroy warns that a fire of this magnitude on an island reduces the opportunities for fauna to either escape or for post-fire landscapes to be recolonized from nearby populations.

“Although the northern half of the island will bounce back in some capacity, there may be a pronounced shift in the way these ecosystems look in the future,” he says.