K’gari fires an urgent warning for Australia’s threatened ecology

Image: The Australian

The name K’gari (pronounced “gurri”) is from the indigenous Butchulla tribe. It means paradise.

Butchulla legend has it K’gari was a white spirit who helped the god Beiral and his messenger Yendingie create the land and sea.

K’gari loved their creation so much she asked to be allowed to stay, so Yengindie turned her into a magnificent sandy island and gave her animals and people for company.

The Butchulla tribe lived on K’gari, the world’s largest sand island, for over 5000 years.

In 1836, a Scottish widow named Eliza Fraser was shipwrecked on the Great Barrier Reef and found her way to K’gari with a small band of survivors.

Fraser later became famous as a travelling storyteller, selling a false tale of mistreatment by the Butchulla people and a “heroic escape”.

As a result, the Butchulla tribe was massacred, survivors displaced to a colony 1500 kilometres away and K’gari was renamed Fraser Island.

This nightmarish chapter of colonialism was somewhat ended in 2017 when the island’s national park was rechristened with its indigenous name.

While local efforts to educate about the island’s history continue, the name ‘Fraser Island’ lives on over K’gari in Wikipedia and Google Maps.

Anyone who has had the good fortune to visit the island will attest the name “paradise” is appropriate.

K’gari is a sumptuous ecosystem, a jewel in Australia’s crown of unique and irreplaceable environmental beauty.

Its vast platinum-white beaches, crystal clear waters and thousand-year-old rainforests dazzle and inspire.

But for the last eight weeks, K’gari has been on fire; the largest, hottest fire to strike the island in modern history.

Image: Tag Along Tours
K’gari’s Eli Creek pours 4 million litres of crystal clear, freshwater into the Coral Sea every hour. Rainwater on K’gari is filtered through sand for over a century before entering the islands waterways.

While K’gari is no stranger to bushfires, the current fire has taken advantage of unusually dry conditions, erratic winds and the second hottest summer on record to burn over 50 per cent of the island’s surface.

Local fire-fighting authorities have struggled to contain and direct the blaze, which was started by illegal campfires in late October.

K’gari’s most remote areas are only reachable by four-wheel drive along narrow sand tracks, preventing larger equipment from reaching critical fire fronts.

Last week, the island’s famous King Fisher Bay Resort was evacuated, while on Monday, authorities directed the residents of Happy Valley, the island’s largest township, to leave their homes.

Rain on Monday night helped to ease conditions, but gusting winds expected in the weeks ahead could still turn the massive fire front back towards rainforests, resorts and settlements.

Local experts have also called for a return to Indigenous backburning methods to help prevent future fires.

Queensland has committed 20 aerial firefighting units, half its fleet, to the blaze and have also requested larger aerial tankers from NSW.

This request has drawn some attention to the 2019-2020 bushfire commission’s recommendation the Australian Government establish a national aerial firefighting fleet.

This was the lone core recommendation of the Royal Commission into National Natural Disasters Arrangements the federal government would only commit to “in principle”.

Legislation allowing the Prime Minister to call a national state of emergency during bushfires and floods was introduced to Federal Parliament on Thursday, December 10.

A federal natural disaster resilience organisation will plan future possible responses to potential natural disasters, integrate relevant first responders at state and local levels and educate at risk communities.

But the Morrison government remains unwilling to take proactive steps to follow the commission’s recommendation and establish a major fleet of heavy-hitting large tankers and helicopters.

Image: Hawkesbury Gazette
NSW Rural Fire Service’s 737 Marie Bashir is the largest aerial firefighting tanker owned by an Australian government and the only one of its size in Australia.

The commission found too few aircraft were available at short notice during the 2019-2020 bushfire season and longer future fire seasons made renting aircraft from other countries an unreliable option.

While individual state governments already possess aerial firefighting assets, NSW is the only state owning large tankers.

Last week, Emergency Management Minister David Littleproud said the Federal Government would support any proposals from the nation’s fire chiefs for a national sovereign fleet.

The minister told ABC’s 7.30: “we’re happy to have a sovereign fleet but we want the fire commissioners to tell us.” 

While this has been viewed as a step in the right direction, it follows statements from the Federal government claiming they had “no desire to replicate or replace [state aerial firefighting] capabilities”

They said the Commonwealth is “comfortable with the present arrangements of the states and territories involving the National Aerial Firefighting Centre (NAFC).”

The focus on the damage done to K’gari and the need for large aerial tankers has brought the issue back to the forefront of the bushfire conversation.

But it remains telling the Federal Government isn’t satisfied with the urgent recommendations of its own bushfire commission.

NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Rob Rogers has already said he will push for Federal government ownership of a major tanker fleet.

Only time will tell if Mr Littleproud’s promised support of these recommendations will lead to actual legislation.

In the meantime, K’gari continues to burn, a heartbreaking and timely reminder of the vulnerability of paradise in a climate change world.