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2009 Victoria Fires & Extinction

Map of fire

A substantial breakfast on February 9 accompanied the news that Victoria’s death toll had risen to 25 with fears that the final figure could top 100. More than a day after the fires several villages were still too dangerous to enter, among them Kinglake. Sixty kilometres north east of Melbourne, this was a target on my tentative itinerary for the following week. Running clockwise from there around the capital, Marysville and Bunyip were also still burning. They made a ring of fire round Yellingbo – another of my targets.

This is the final resting place for Victoria’s state bird, the helmeted honeyeater. These days it’s a subspecies of yellow-tufted but it has had full species status. Either way the population is down to a hundred and something birds, all in one spot – just ripe for eradication by a natural disaster. Or indeed anything else.

To return to the Tasmanian devil, its population was far more robust at around 15,000 but plummeting fast enough to be classified as endangered. An infectious cancer was the driving force, but not the only factor. Low genetic diversity meant that all the animals were susceptible. And where does low genetic diversity come from?

Us, again. We drive these creatures to the brink of extinction then expect them to bounce back in some recovery programme.

The world doesn’t work that way. We’re not God.

So it was my last chance to see helmeted honeyeater, flames willing. Well, the bird does still survive but the fires did change my route such that I didn’t get to Yellingbo, nor Kinglake.

The final, human casualty list for Black Saturday was short of 200 but a postscript notes that a million animals died. If this includes insects (and one day we will be counting the last of them) the figure may not be surprising. But if not…

The only reliable non-human death toll seems to be 11,800 livestock. The insurance companies probably worked that out but there were no policies for other species. For instance, no-one knows what happened to Leadbeater’s possum. The fires ripped right through its last known haunt so the little marsupial may be extinct now. Continued logging of its habitat should finish it off. That last statement is a fact, not a cynical supposition: clear-felling still goes on.

One famous koala did survive: the image of Sam drinking from a firefighter’s bottle became iconic if a little inaccurate. She (yes, a girl) had been filmed the week before during earlier fires but, hey, the sentiment was there. It’s a pity that sentiment so rarely translates into action.

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