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28 Jun 2017

Renewing the bush after Black Saturday’s destruction
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Renewing the bush after Black Saturday’s destruction

The losses suffered by the communities of Kinglake and Kinglake West in the 2009 Black Saturday bushfires were among the most catastrophic in Australia’s recorded history.

In a recent visit, TAKE2 discovered how Greenfleet’s revegetation project to breathe life back into the bush after the fires helped revitalise not only the land, but the community too.

If you’ve travelled to Kinglake, north of Melbourne, in recent years, you’ll know its narrow, winding road, majestic mountain forests and idyllic pastures. These days there’s little sign of the devastating bushfires that swept through the region on the weekend of February 7, 2009.

On a day of record breaking 46.6 degree heat, a fire at Kilmore East tore through Kinglake, later merging with the blaze at Murrundindi Mill and destroying Marysville. 78 Victorian communities were devastated and 173 people perished.

Parks Victoria Ranger Tony Fitzgerald was working that day with a crew of eight firefighters. While the details have faded with time he says, “it was just a shocking day. It’s the hottest thing I’ve seen in 20 years. It was really intense”.

Half the crew, including Tony, lost their homes. “One of our crew lost family as well. It was just a shocker.

“The aftermath was very impactful, for the human and animal communities. I was left wondering ‘are we in a new era of fire intensity? Will all the species return?’ ”

The fire’s impact was felt long after the embers cooled. As well as the human loss and property destruction, 98% of Kinglake National Park’s magnificent bushland was reduced to ashes, reducing the habitat of the threatened brush-tailed phascogale.

In 2010, to help the forest and animals recover, Parks Victoria decided to revegetate the Watson’s Creek Wildlife Corridor. Part of the Kinglake-Warrandyte Conservation link, 29 hectares of this 80-hectare corridor had been cleared for pasture in the 1960s. It was the missing link that would connect the forests of Kinglake National Park and Warrandyte State Park. By creating that connection, Parks Victoria hoped the phascogales in the virtually untouched Warrandyte State Park would eventually return to Kinglake National Park.

Greenfleet, a TAKE2 Founding Partner, worked with Parks Victoria on the project. Within three years, 22,500 seedlings provided by Greenfleet had been planted, and 2 km of deer-proof fencing to protect the young plants had been built, providing new habitat for the phascogale. The project is still ongoing.

While Greenfleet has planted 475 native forests in Australia and New Zealand, CEO Wayne Wescott says the Kinglake reforestation project holds a special place among the many reforestation projects completed by his organisation.

“As it grows, the forest is capturing carbon from the atmosphere, and it plays a key role in healing the local community after the tragic bushfires. We are proud that our project provided an opportunity for local residents to connect with nature in an uplifting and empowering way.

“As well, we were thrilled to see that by filling up this cleared pocket of land, the trees have helped the endangered brush-tailed phascogales return to the National Park.”

While a Parks Victoria’s survey soon after the fires found no sign of the phascogales, seven years on, their research suggests numbers are heading back to pre-Black Saturday levels.

Tony also believes the reforestation project helped community members deal with the tragedy. “I think for a lot of the locals, and certainly for me, being part of this revegetation project was a very healing, nurturing thing to do, especially when there’s been so much destruction."

Kinglake resident and president of the Kinglake Landcare group Roger Cook was among those who helped with replanting. “This whole area was black after the fires, with nothing green from horizon to horizon. I thought the soil wouldn’t recover.

“But within weeks, up came the tree ferns and native shrubs. It was really inspiring to see the regeneration of the bush.”

Like Tony, Roger lost his home in the fires.

A former bushland planner, he spent almost 20 years of his working life conducting preventative burns. He’s worried about the impact of global warming on Victoria’s bushland. “Not every fire is like those on Black Saturday. But the intensity and frequency of bushfires in south eastern Australia will increase due to climate change.”

He says there were “two rays of sunshine” that followed Black Saturday - “Total regeneration of the bush after the fire and the fantastic response of the community – family, friends and strangers - helping people like us. It made you feel good to be human.”

He credits the Watson’s Creek reforestation project with helping him deal with the events of Black Saturday. “I’ve been there for the planting and barbecues too – and it’s been really helpful for getting over the trauma of the fires.”

Greenfleet will continue to monitor plant growth at Watson’s Creek for years to come. Tony believes they can walk away from the project in 10 to 15 years and leave the forest to look after itself.

For him too, the most worthwhile outcome from the Watson’s Creek reforestation has been the community’s willingness to help. “There was goodwill and a real desire to rebuild, regenerate and fix things up.
 
“But we don’t need to wait for natural disasters to generate momentum on a project like this. I think we can happily do that without them.”

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