Firefighters have saved the only known natural stand of Wollemi pines, so-called “dinosaur trees” that fossil records show existed up to 200m years ago, from the bushfires that have devastated New South Wales.
The state’s environment minister, Matt Kean, said a specially deployed team of remote air firefighters helped save the critically endangered trees from the giant Gospers Mountain fire.
The pines are in an undisclosed sandstone grove in the Wollemi national park, in the Blue Mountains, about 200km north-west of Sydney. They were thought extinct until discovered 26 years ago.
Kean said with fewer than 200 of the trees left in the wild the government had to do everything it could to save them, describing it as “an unprecedented environmental protection mission”.
He said the operation by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and NSW Rural Fire Service included air tankers dropping fire retardant and specialist firefighters being winched in by helicopter to set up an irrigation system in the gorge. As the fire approached, helicopters water bucketed the fire edge to reduce its impact on the groves of trees.
A scientific assessment found while some of the trees were charred the species would survive in the wild. Kean said the government would continue to keep the precise location of the trees secret to ensure their long-term protection.
“Illegal visitation remains a significant threat to the Wollemi pines survival in the wild due to the risk of trampling regenerating plants and introducing diseases, which could devastate the remaining populations and their recovery,” he said.
The trees were discovered by a team of researchers in the spring of 1994, when they noticed a stand of unusual coniferous trees down a deep ravine in remote forest.
They collected samples and sent them to botanists at the National Parks office.
The species had previously been believed long extinct. The plant once formed vast forests across Australia, New Zealand and Antarctica.
The trees were propagated and distributed to botanic gardens around the world in a bid to preserve the species. They were also introduced to commercial horticulture, with sales used to help fund the conservation of the original stand.
The Gospers Mountain fire has burned more than 500,000 hectares since starting after a lightning strike in October. It was contained earlier this week.
Fires this season have devastated more than 5 million hectares in NSW, and more than 10m hectares across the country. It is estimated more than a billion animals may have been killed.