Forest fires are a regular, and many people say necessary occurrence in Victoria’s eucalypt forests. These fires, which are often devastating to wildlife, livestock and human inhabitants, are most frequent during the hot and dry summer months, especially in periods of extreme head and high winds. These elements come together with destructive effects.
Mount Stapylton in the Grampians, called Gariwerd by the local indigenous Australians, burned in January 2014. The area is a good example of the effects of wildfire as well as of the recovery process.
Only six months after the fire, new leaves have emerged from the trunk of the charred eucalypts.These are called epicormic shoots, which lie dormant within the trunk of the tree. These trees are less dependent on seed germination, which in other species is at times facilitated by fires, and are more commonly found in areas which experience frequent fires of a rate of one fire event in a decade or so. Because these fires are more frequent, they are also less intense because less fuel has had the opportunity to build up.
Different species have different methods of dealing with fires. Grass trees of the genus Xanthorrhoea, which are endemic to Australia, flower faster and more abundantly after a bushfire. A small grass tree can be seen in the photograph above below the trunk of the gum tree.
Fires facilitate the seed dispersal of some Banksia species, which release their seeds after a fire event. The release of seeds can even take place when the plant itself has been destroyed by the fire! Banksias are adapted in other ways to frequent fires. They have thick bark which protects the plant from heat, and procreate via lignotubers in the ground, from which the plant can grow after the fire has destroyed the visible parts above ground. The light colour inside the banksia cone indicates that it must have opened after the fire!
The woody seedpods of some Hakea species also open after a fire assed through. The thick shell protects the seed, which in many cases are still able to germinate even after intense fire has killed the parent plant. Many Hakeas also have lignotubers which help the plant survive after a fire.
Regeneration after a bush or forest fire is also helped by the layer of ash containing nutrients from which newly germinated seeds can benefit. Often, growth is accelerated after a fire and can remain so for over 30 years.
While most of Mount Stapylton burned, adjacent Mount Zero in the very north of the Grampians range escaped the fire. Climbing to the top of Mount Zero offers a beautiful view of the Grampians including some of the burned areas, and and allows the visitor to imagine what the area was like before the fires, and what it will look like in the years to come. Until then it offers a fascinating insight into the ecology of Australian forests.
Mount Stapylton and the Grampians National Park are open to visitors year round, subject to seasonal closures. After the 2014 fires some closures may still apply. For detailed information check the National Parks Victoria website at parkweb.vic.gov.au or call the Parks Victoria Information Centre at 13 1963.